Free Solar Panels: Here’s What the Fine Print Means – CNET

Sunlight is free. Solar panels are not.

With electricity prices higher across the US than they were just a couple of years ago, many people see solar panels as an increasingly appealing option to power their homes. 

The fact that some companies market “free solar panels” makes them even more tantalizing.

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Solar panels generally cost around $24,000, before tax credits and incentives, to install on the typical American home — not exactly pocket change. This expense is what makes solar installation companies’ so-called “free” promotions so alluring. But as with most things in life, you need to read the fine print.

“‘Free’ can mean a number of different things,” said Phillip Haddix, Solar for All Portfolio Manager at DC Sustainable Energy Utility, a provider of rebates and incentives for people to install solar systems. “It’ll primarily depend on where those companies operate. A lot of what is possible in terms of affordable or free solar depends on not only the federal incentives that are available, but also what is available at the state level.”

What solar companies usually mean by “free” are either power purchase agreements or solar leases, both of which might actually be a good deal. Solar PPAs are available in at least 28 states, including California, New York, Texas and Georgia, so if you’re interested in solar you should research which programs are available where you live.

What do companies mean by free solar panels?

If you live in a state that offers strong incentives or allows leases and power purchase agreements, “free” solar panels may be legitimate. There might still be a cost to these schemes, however.

In some places, such as Illinois, certain government incentive programs offer solar panel installation for free if you meet certain criteria, such as an income requirement.

More often, these offers involve leases or power purchase agreements. Under a PPA, a solar company will install a solar system on the roof of your home and charge you for the energy you use. You, the homeowner, won’t own the solar system. The company will.

Solar leases are similar to PPAs in that the homeowner will not own the system. Think of it like renting a vehicle. Leases typically don’t require any money upfront — you just pay a fixed rate each month to keep the system on your home. This way, you still enjoy the benefits of lower energy bills without the need to shell out the entire cost of solar or financing.

Both PPA and solar leases are “a way that people can still participate in the solar energy economy, but with a contractual obligation with this outside company who is bearing those costs,” said Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor at the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago.

What’s the catch? Are free solar panels a good idea?

Power purchase agreements and solar leases allow people to realize savings on their energy bills but without a huge upfront cost. But there must be a catch, you may be thinking. Sort of. Much like getting into any other financial agreement, pay very close attention to the rate you’ll pay, whether that’s the price per kilowatt-hour for a PPA or the fixed monthly rate of a lease. Make sure you’re getting a good deal, and watch out for “escalators,” which will raise the rate after a certain period of time.

Another “catch”: Since the solar company maintains ownership of the system under a PPA or lease, it will generally be the one who benefits from both tax incentives and renewable energy credits. Entities such as power companies will pay owners of solar systems for these RECs, which are created when a certain amount of electricity is generated from a renewable source.

One advantage of owning, rather than leasing, your solar panels is that they tend to boost home values. “If you own the asset, it actually increases the value of your home, as opposed to if you’re in a lease or PPA program, you don’t really own anything,” Michaud said.

Still, for those unable to afford purchasing their own solar system, a PPA or lease can help you save on your energy bills. In the fourth quarter of last year, PPA prices were on average about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to one estimate, compared to an average of about 15 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity across the US.

Other solar panel financing options

Interested in adding solar panels to your home? Here are some things to consider with various financing options.

Cash: You’ve got the funds to pay upfront for the purchase and installation of a solar system. Great! This will grant you all the benefits of solar, including energy savings, tax credits and a higher home value. The only potential drawback here is that since you own the system, you’ll be responsible for its maintenance. 

Home equity: Home equity loans and lines of credit, or HELOCs, are tools that use your home as leverage for a loan. It’s best to avoid them unless you’re sure you’ll be able to pay the debt off. Failure to do so can result in your home being foreclosed upon. With that said, if the math of potential energy savings works in your favor, it may make sense to leverage your home’s equity to finance a solar system.

Other loan: If the potential energy savings outweigh the interest rate of the loan, borrowing money to pay for a solar system may make sense. Some lenders now offer loans specifically for buying solar systems, but again, make sure the terms are favorable and that you’ll be able to make the monthly payments.

How to reduce the upfront cost of solar panels

If you’re ready to commit to a solar system for your home, but still worried about its cost, there are some ways to reduce the financial hit. Most importantly: Get quotes from multiple companies.

“Solar companies will come to your house, they’ll do site assessments, they’ll sit down in your living room and walk through different options,” Michaud said. “That’s valuable. Engage with folks and understand what’s out there and what exists.”

Haddix said to compile all this information together. “As with any big purchase, get multiple offers and compare them,” he said.

There are also less obvious, more complex ways to save on the upfront costs of solar panels. These include:

  • Community solar: Instead of putting panels on your roof to enjoy direct energy savings, you can opt to invest in community solar projects if your state allows. Typically these are nearby solar farms, and the energy they generate can reduce your energy bills. Community solar is a great option for people who rent their homes, those who cannot afford solar or for those with restrictive HOAs or otherwise cannot install solar.
  • Solar co-op: Various organizations exist across the country to help people pool their resources together to reduce the costs of solar. These programs can provide lower prices than buying solar on your own, like buying in bulk. 
  • Efficiency upgrades: Before reaching for the solar panels, look at the rest of your house. “Solar is an exciting type of infrastructure, but if the ultimate goal is to save money on your electricity bills, I encourage homeowners to think about efficiency upgrades first,” Michaud said. “Those could include insulation, upgrading and replacing windows or other things that are maybe less fun, but can help you realize savings immediately and lower costs. Once you’ve done those efficiency retrofits or upgrades, maybe solar is a good idea.”

Frequently asked questions

Can I get free solar panels in my state?

It’s possible, but there are requirements. Certain states are more solar-friendly than others, offering more incentives to help with solar costs. Some of these incentives include free solar panel programs. To be eligible for free solar panels, you’ll likely have to meet an income requirement. Low-income households are more likely to be eligible for free solar panels.

However, most of these “free solar panel” incentives come with a lease or PPA agreement.

What is a solar lease?

Solar leases are a popular option for those who don’t want to own solar panels but still want to use solar energy to power their home. Entering a solar lease means you pay for the use of company-owned solar equipment on your home. This is usually a fixed monthly rate. 

What is a PPA?

Entering a PPA (or power purchase agreement), means you pay for the electricity generated by a company-owned solar panel system. PPA rates are typically cheaper than the retail electric rate offered by your local power company.