Sacramento Area Homeowners Walking Down The Solar Path

Sacramento California – In Northern California, solar installers have flourished despite obstacles put up by the economy, Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac (See Story PACE solar financing). Tech savvy solar installers are helping homeowners walk through the often confusing minefield of solar financing and permitting using software geared to helping families understand the solar process.

Ed Lorts knows about the headache side. Two years ago, he began researching solar panels for his home in a Northern California neighborhood. He expected an avalanche of data, but he figured he could handle it. In his 30-year career as a marine engineer, “one of the complaints was that I over analyze things. Still do.”

Months went by. He gathered facts. Soon, the picture became so complex, he could only make sense of it in a spreadsheet. “I had a lot of different bids that I was analyzing in terms of cost and design factors, the rebates and incentives and what cash outlay and what the tax credits would be. And cost per watt,” he said. “So yeah, it was a pretty advanced spreadsheet.”

So how did Lorts end up with the 2-kilowatt system that chops his monthly power bill to $5? By choosing a solar installer that uses advanced solar estimating software, such as Clean Power Finance, that explains the cost benefit analysis showing state and city incentives would cover more than half of the system’s $17,000 cost.

Clean Power Finance (CPF) Tools is an enterprise class solar application software program that supports sales and marketing business processes for solar installers. Since its introduction, CPF Tools has garnered enthusiastic reviews and now supports over 30 percent of the solar installer community nationwide. CPF Tools drives provider efficiencies and enhances the customer value proposition, all in service of the company’s mission to drive the adoption of renewable energy in the mass market.

“Solar and other renewable energy solutions will only be successful in the mass market when providers are enabled to present a clear, compelling value proposition to customers,” said Joseph Brakohiapa, President and CEO of Clean Power Finance. “CPF Tools helps installers generate exact quotes, professionally present energy and environmental benefits, and gain access to critical value-add services including verified leads, 3D roof analyses, third-party financing solutions, automated completion of government forms even insurance solutions. By helping solar installers be successful, we drive the success of the green movement .”

Many in the solar business in and around Sacramento think Lortz’s case is the exception, not the rule. Too often, they say, homeowners skip solar, even though it is a sound financial choice because the process can be a labyrinth. Information matters in solar, because the solar arrays are so customized. The house’s direction, the type of roof, and the shade from nearby trees are just three variables. The panels themselves vary widely in efficiency and cost. Then there’s the paperwork: requesting solar permits from the city and the utility, and cashing in on state, local and federal incentives.

The goal is to expand the California home solar market, which already leads the country but lags its potential. The state’s high electricity prices and incentives mean a home solar system pays for itself in six to nine years an impossible speed in the country’s coal-powered regions.

California stands out as the country’s largest solar market, with almost two-thirds of the country’s solar portfolio. As in the rest of the country, residential solar systems are more common but much smaller, on average, than commercial systems. Nevertheless, California’s stiff solar renewables target 33 percent by 2020 means every contribution counts. Thanks to a generous state incentive for solar power, an entire supply chain is sprouting around home solar panels.

Hardware stores such as the Home Depot and Lowe’s have increasingly sold solar on retail shelves, along with installation service. Dozens of companies, large and small, offer free home evaluations that end with a quote. All face the same problem: a thicket of details and numbers that keeps Californians from getting home solar even where it’s a smart financial move.

For example, one local chapter of the Sierra Club has devoted itself to exposing permit prices for solar California. In a 2008 study, it found seven cities with permit costs above $500 and 20 cities where permitting was free. The chapter’s reports have moved some cities to slash or end their solar permit fees.

Finance presents another roadblock. A small photovoltaic system costs several tens of thousands of dollars before incentives, a hefty sum even for rich Californians. Yet banks have only dipped their toes in the solar lending market, as renewable energy is still gaining entry to the real estate world.

Tania Reuben, a California-based writer who runs the website, expects to have her family’s 17-kilowatt solar array up soon but she’s spending hours on the phone to make sure she can pay for it. Financially, the system checks out. It’s larger than the average American solar array of 5 kilowatts; she expects it to supply at least 80 percent of the home’s power. With incentives, it would pay for itself in seven years.

But her ambition takes organization. “A good amount of time, I mean, it’s been an investment,” she said. Since spring, Reuben said, she’s been in constant contact with her bank, accountant and solar installer. Right now, she’s trying to convince the bank to give her more favorable loan terms. Reuben said the bank makes low-interest loans for cars and other home improvements, but solar panels aren’t seen as having any collateral.

Moreover, none of her neighbors has a solar array, so she can’t prove that solar would raise the value of her home. That raises her interest rate. Reuben’s blog is about eco-friendly living. But even her patience is wearing thin.

“If this is how hard I’m feeling it is, and I have that extra reason to be committed, it makes me really concerned that the average consumer is going to run into a couple of roadblocks and then go, ‘You know what? This is too complicated,'” she said.

Leasing solar is an option, but usually does not give as much benefit to the homeowner as it does to the lease company. How it works. Instead of selling solar systems to customers, some solar companies lease them. Customers make a down payment of anywhere from nothing to several thousand dollars, then they pay a monthly fee for the solar electricity. The arrangement is designed to get consumers around the high front-end cost of solar and to slash their power bills over the life of the contract.

While Sacramento companies struggle to clear the way for solar in California, the simplest solar market in the world Germany’s is trying to tame a solar boom. German utilities offer a “feed-in tariff”: Homeowners get 31 euro cents about 42 cents for every kilowatt-hour they generate from renewables. The program has exploded, adding 8,000 megawatts last year; German leaders want to trim the subsidy, since the grid can’t continue to absorb that much growth.

Friedo Sielemann, the German Embassy’s counselor for environment and energy, said the generous tariff has been the main driver behind solar. But he added that the process is far more accessible to everyday Germans than U.S. programs are to Americans.

The 31-cent subsidy is guaranteed for 20 years, which gives banks certainty and lets them offer cheaper loans. Utilities are required to buy the power, so there’s no risk of a stranded solar panel.

Germans can learn about their home’s solar potential from the German Energy Agency or solar companies; when they choose an electrician, he does the paperwork for the local utility.

There’s one thing left: letting the federal grid agency know, so it can monitor how much solar is in the country. The form is online, and two pages long. Sacramento and other government officials concerned with solar might consider adopting such a program for solar installers.

Source NY Times article Saqib Ramim of Climate wire.