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Options abound for rooftop arrays

Mark Donahue had solar panels installed on the roof of his Plymouth home through a lease program with SolarCity. Mark Donahue had solar panels installed on the roof of his Plymouth home through a lease program with SolarCity. (Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2012
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PLYMOUTH — Unlike ground-mounted panels, rooftop solar arrays face little red tape. The complications come in figuring out which of various financing options is the best deal.

Looking to reduce expenses, Army veteran Mark J. Donahue researched offers from various solar providers and then chose a no-down payment lease option from SolarCity of Marlborough.

“Anything to cut down on my monthly bills,” said Donahue.

He lives  with his wife and two children in a three-bedroom  home in South Plymouth and pays monthly electric bills between $200 to $250. He points to his family’s televisions, air-conditioning, floor-board basement heating, and a pool filtration system as significant power users.

Donahue’s lease with SolarCity guaranteed him monthly savings of $90.  In return, he makes a lease payment of $40.10  a month. The installation of the roof panels was timely and painless and the company handled the permitting, he said.

Donahue used only about half as much power from the grid as a year ago: 773 kilowatt hours  compared with 1,165. His bill was down to $127.45  from $260.49. 

Some solar advocates, however, say you’ll save more in the long run by buying your system. You have to pay up front or finance the purchase costs, and the payback period is typically five  to seven years before you start making money. But after that, you can save the full amount of your bill and benefit from an array of incentives: a 30 percent federal income tax credit good through 2016; a state rebate of up to $1,000; and the ongoing sale of valuable Solar Renewable Energy Certificates to power grid companies.

If you lease, the incentives belong to the company. “That’s why everyone is tripping over themselves to provide these leases,” said Tara Mason, owner of Second Generation Energy of Hopedale. 

One of her customers, Mansfield homeowners Chris and Brian Horn,  recently purchased their own system to fully power an approximately 2,000-square-foot  home. The cost was $60,000.  (For comparison, the panels that supply about half of Donahue’s power cost $10,500.) 

Brian Horn said they borrowed the money from their savings because putting solar on the roof was a better investment than buying stocks or leaving the money in the bank.

The Horns’ investment was offset by the 30 percent federal tax credit, and they also own the Solar Renewable Energy Certificates for the energy produced by their system — worth money because state law requires electric companies to purchase a percentage of their power from renewable sources.

The certificates currently sell for $500 for every 1 megawatt hour  of power produced, and Horn expects his system to generate from 5 to 10 of these every year.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

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