Going Solar Without Spending a Lot of Dough

PHOTO: Solar panels are seen on the garage of the Christensen home in Lakeside, California.
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It's not often that a homeowner looks forward to a bill arriving in the mail. But Chad Tromblee eagerly awaits one bill in particular.

"I can't wait to get it and see what the electric bill is," he told ABC News. These days, his electric bill has shrunk as quickly as a puddle on a hot sidewalk. For the month of April, it totaled just $16.54.

Tromblee, who lives with his wife in a three-bedroom home near Albany, N.Y., hasn't turned off the refrigerator and washing machine or switched off his lights. He drove his electric bill into the cellar by putting solar panels on his roof.

"I start making electricity like 6 in the morning, and usually produce it until 8 p.m. at night," said Tromblee. In April a year ago, his roof was bare -- there were no solar panels. That month, his electricity bill l was $102.64, more than six times as high as this April.

His system was installed for only a fraction of the usual cost. That's because he and his family don't own the solar energy system, they lease it. Tromblee figures if he'd bought the solar system outright, he would have had to lay out around $46,000 for panels and installation, before any grants and tax incentives. Instead, he snagged a lease deal offered by the company SolarCity. In his case, he put down $8,000 to cover all the costs for his 20-year lease.

Across the country in Southern California, Jamie Christensen also decided leasing made sense. Christensen is a clerk at Costco with two young children and a wife who is staying home to raise their kids. The family was able to go solar with almost no money down -- just $500. Under their arrangement with SolarCity, the Christensens will pay a fee of about $100 every month for the next 20 years to lease their system. Electricity costs are on top of that, but with his solar panels doing most of the work, Christensen says the monthly electric bill runs around $28.00.

And before solar? "Our payments were anywhere from $200 to $300-plus during the high-energy months," said Christensen.

SolarCity is one of three major companies offering lease deals. It will also handle everything from permitting to instillation. The other two big companies in the business are Sunrun and Sungevity.

SolarCity Spokesman Jonathan Bass says the lease deals are making solar more accessible to a wider range of homeowners and businesses people.

"The key is to make solar attractive to more customers," said Bass. "There was a certain customer that was going to write a $15,000 check and understood they would get a great return on investment over 15 or 20 years." But for the customer who can't, or doesn't want to do that, "If you can offer them savings sooner that is something that appeals to them," said Bass.

Even at that, solar still won't work for everyone. "Not all homes are going to be appropriate for solar," said Bass. "You generally want a roof that is not shaded for a significant portion of the day and faces east, south or west."

Solar remains a niche player in the energy market, meeting less than one percent of America's energy needs. Still, instillations are growing rapidly, especially for commercial properties.

Data from Greentech Media (GTM) Research, which tracks green technologies, indicate that in 2009 new solar energy systems were installed in about 5,000 commercial buildings. That number more than doubled in 2010. The growth in home installations has not been that steep, but it too is on the upswing. Greentech says in 2010, about 48,000 new home solar systems were installed; that jumped to more than 51,000 new systems in 2011.

Prices are dropping too, partly because of inexpensive solar panels from China. In fact, the price of the solar cells and panels has dropped so low that the Commerce Department has determined Chinese manufacturers are improperly receiving government subsidies and dumping the panels on the U.S. market. The Department is recommending for a 31 percent tariff on Chinese-made solar panels and cells. Shyam Mehta of GTM Research says Chinese manufacturers will find a way around the tariff, and that consumers will not see a "really big bump in the cost of solar electricity."

If so, that's good news for the growing solar industry, which employed some 100,000 workers in 2010, double the number in 2009, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Those numbers have added up to make a believer out of Chad Tromblee, who is an accountant. Right now, his system produces so much energy that some of it is going back into the grid. Tromblee gets a credit for those extra kilowatts, something he can draw on during months with less sunshine. For Tromblee and his wife Amanda, this wasn't only about the savings. They also wanted to do something to conserve energy.

That was not the main motivation for Jamie Christensen and his wife. "We're not save-the- planet, go-green people," he said. But Christensen said that considering the deal he got, you don't have to be a committed environmentalist to act like one.

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