Archive for solar energy

Can the Poor Afford a Community Solar Garden Subscription?

Yesterday, I wrote about Community Solar Gardens (CSGs) and their uses from an investment perspective. One of the goals of CSG legislation is to allow people without access to large amounts of credit the opportunity to invest in solar. Yet there is a clause in the bill that places the size of the smallest allowable CSG subscription at 1kW. A typical home system is usually between 2kW and 10kW, so a 1kW system does not seem unreasonable if the intent is to simulate a home system. However, if the intent is to allow people of all economic means to participate, the 1kW minimum may be onerous.

According to Rick Coen, Director of Engineering at Colorado solar installer Bella Energy, a 1 kW solar garden subscription would probably cost about $2,500 after current Colorado incentives and federal tax credits. Colorado incentives have been dropping quickly recently, as have solar panel prices, so this cost could either rise or fall, depending on which falls faster. Nevertheless, $2,500 seems like more money than most typical low income earners are likely to have at one time, so the minimum subscription may present a barrier.

A bill that was designed to allow low income earners to participate would either remove the 1 kW minimum, or provide for some type of monthly payment plan.

Financing

The Community Solar Gardens bill (HB1342) does allow the developer of the CSG to provide financing to subscribers, but for someone with low income, such loans would likely need to be secured against the subscription itself in order to achieve a low interest rate. If the income from the subscription came close to covering the payments on the loan, a CSG developer could package together a CSG subscription and a loan so that a 1 kW subscription could be bought on a monthly payment plan.

In sunny Colorado, solar farms often have capacity factors as high as 20%. At that capacity factor, typical monthly production for a 1kW nameplate system would be 146 kWh, which is worth about $14.60 a month at typical Colorado residential rates of 10 cents per kWh. Using a mortgage calculator, I found that the income from the subscription would be enough to pay off a $1,400 ten-year loan at 5%, an $1,800 fifteen-year loan at 5%, or a $2,200 20 year loan at 5%. That means that with $300 down, a low income subscriber could pledge the income from the CSG subscription for 20 years, and would eventually be able to use the income from it after the loan was paid off 20 years later. Solar panels can last for well over 20 years, so the subscription could still be worth something at that time.

A more likely option would be for the subscriber to make the initial $300 down payment on the 20 year plan, followed by smaller amounts each month to accelerate the debt repayment, and end up owning the subscription outright sooner.

Despite the potentially daunting $2,500 initial cost of a 1kW subscription, it looks as if developer financing could bring this down to a manageable initial payment. All of this assumes that incentives for solar do not fall faster than the price of solar installations, and that currently low interest rates stay low. On the other hand, if electric rates rise, the income from a CSG subscription might be enough to cover the entire subscription.

Truly Affordable Solar

While financing can in principle allow the low income earners to purchase a Community Solar Garden subscription, it remains to be seen if there will be enough demand for an asset that has no tangible value for twenty years among people without much cash to spare. I doubt that the demand will be sufficient to entice a CSG developer to offer such a complex financing arrangement. A much simpler way to make CSG subscriptions affordable would be to allow subscriptions smaller than 1 kW.

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Community Solar Gardens

A new bill being considered in the Colorado legislature would create "Solar Gardens." Solar Gardens allow people to participate financially in owning part of a solar array even if they do not have a suitable site on their own property. My reading of the proposed legislation is that subscriptions in a Solar Garden would be financial securities, and fall under securities laws. That’s probably a good thing.

Solar for Everyone

Solar panels are elitist: They cost a lot of money, and only homeowners with good solar access can usefully install them. This means that renters and people who can’t come up with at least $5,000 to $10,000 worth of cash or credit can’t own them. That’s the problem Colorado House Bill 10-1342 (HB1342): Community Solar Gardens aims to correct.

HB1342 defines a Community Solar Garden(CSG) as "A solar electric generation facility with a nameplate rating of two megawatts or less… where the beneficial use of the electricity generated by the facility belongs to the subscribers to the community solar garden." A subscriber is a "retail customer of a qualifying retail utility who owns a subscription and who has identified one or more physical locations to which to which the subscription shall be attributed" withing the same county or municipality as the CSG. The bill allows subscribers to change the premises to which a subscription is attributed, and also to sell them to other qualifying subscribers, something which is necessary in case a subscriber were to move out of the county or the utility’s territory.

It’s a worthy idea, although local solar installers are concerned that the superior economics of large installations will eat into their market share, by easing the requirements in House Bill 10-1001 for customer-sited generation. People who own perfectly good sites for rooftop solar may instead choose to buy a CSG subscription because of the convenience and potentially lower price. I think fears that residential customers who are good candidates for rooftop solar might instead subscribe to CSGs are overblown. Although the economics may be better, buying solar in Colorado is not yet a great investment because of the cost an return involved. Instead, I believe people are investing in solar because it gives them satisfaction to think that they are using green energy, and because they want to show off their environmental bling to their neighbors. I know that some people are more interested in the bling aspects of solar panels than the economic aspects, because otherwise there would not be a market for fake panels in Japan, although I don’t know of anyone who knowingly bought fake solar panels in the US.

On the other hand, there is currently a multiplier in the bill which would allow 2 kW of CSG subscriptions to substitute for 3 kW of rooftop solar that I think needs to be fixed to avoid undermining the residential set-aside of Colorado’s renewable energy standard as envisioned in HB 1001.

Energy Sprawl

My greatest concern with the bill is not that it will cause a move towards large installations, but that it will lead to more ground-mounted installations taking up open space, contributing to Energy Sprawl. No matter what you think about the economics of photvoltaics, one advantage that they have over almost every other type of electricity generation (both fossil and renewable) is that they can be placed on otherwise unused rooftops and other structures, giving a use to otherwise wasted space. Only energy efficiency and conservation have less physical impact on the environment than rooftop solar. Some people have told me that their air conditioner ran less after they put solar on their roof.

Any law which makes solar more likely to be ground-mounted than rooftop is a step in the wrong direction. I think the bill should be amended to prohibit CSGs from being ground-mounted, effectively limiting them to large rooftops and other structures such as awnings for parking lots. This would also have the effect of doing something to limit the practical size of CSGs to available rooftops, which would probably make the solar installers a bit happier.

The Secondary Market for Community Solar Garden Subscriptions

Provisions for a secondary market for CSG subscriptions are included in the bill, since a subscriber moving out of the county in which their CSG is located will not be able to benefit from their subscription. The secondary market and and other security-like characteristics of subscriptions may make them a useful financial tool for small investors. Most importantly, a CSG subscription is (as intended) an excellent hedge against rising electricity prices.

The only real reason to hold a CSG subscription for the long term is as a hedge against rising electricity prices because, like all utility-subsidized solar installations in Colorado, the utility ends up owning the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which are defined as all the “environmental attributes of the electricity.” Although most people with solar panels don’t understand this, the fact that they cannot legally claim the RECs means that they are using electricity that is just as dirty as any other Coloradan, with the exception of direct purchasers of RECs or Carbon Offsets, such as Windsource or Colorado Carbon Fund subscribers.

Although the secondary market for CSG subscriptions is likely to be very illiquid, it will probably become a good direct indicator of local expectations for utility rates. CSGs will not be much use to speculators, however, because there are restrictions in the bill which limit the investment to only 120% of estimated electricity usage at the designated physical location of the subscription. Nevertheless, experienced local market professionals with an understanding of market psychology may be able to make small profits trading subscriptions, since the illiquid and unprofessional nature of the market will likely make prices extremely volatile and subject to strong behavioral biases. When electricity rates are rising, subscription prices will likely overshoot their true value as potential subscribers overestimate future increases, and prices will likely undershoot if falling natural gas prices lead to falling interest in CSG subscriptions.

Allowing investors into the subscription market would probably create a more liquid and stable market for subscriptions, but such an outcome is unlikely because of the general public distaste for speculators. It’s also impractical because of the fact that payments to subscribers are at the retail electricity rate, which is considerably higher than the owners of commercial solar farms are allowed, and hence are effectively subsidized by all utility customers, over and above the direct subsidies given to encourage solar in Colorado.

CSG subscriptions have other aspects that will be familiar to investors. The law allows for the CSG to finance the purchase of a subscription (buying on margin.) It also allows the payments for electricity production to either go to offset the subscriber’s electricity bill, or to go to the CSG sponsor. In the latter case, I could see a small subscriber buying a small subscription, and enrolling in the equivalent of a Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRIP): rather than cash payments, the electricity generation would be used to increase the size of the CSG subscription over time, until the subscriber decided to start taking cash payments. A CSG with a large number of subscribers enrolled in DRIP-like plans might add a new solar module to the farm every month, in order to keep up with the growing subscriber base.

CSG subscriptions could become a valuable financial planning tool for retirees and others on fixed incomes. Because a CSG subscription rises in value with utility rates, an owner would be better able to budget for the utility bill, no matter how wildly electricity prices gyrate. As subscription prices fall with the falling cost of photovoltaics, I can see the purchase of a CSG subscription becoming standard financial advice for retirees.

CSG Subscriptions as Securities

Although professional investors and speculators will have at most a limited role in the trading of subscriptions, CSG subscriptions may legally be securities. The legal definition of a "Security" is an investment in an enterprise with the expectation of profit from the efforts of other people. If I’m right and the draft law is not changed, CSG subscriptions will fall under Colorado securities regulations. (Because CSG subscriptions cannot be sold outside the state, they are clearly matter for Colorado security regulators.)

For small CSGs set up by community organizations, this is unlikely to have a tremendous impact, because securities laws include a number of exemptions for sales to a small number of related individuals. (Note that this is not intended as legal advice! I am not qualified to give legal advice, and even a small CSG should need to consult with someone familiar with the relevant laws.) For large CSGs with many subscribers, securities law may actually require the delivery of a prospectus and fall under a variety of other rules about communications that apply to the CSG developer and its representatives. In general, this is probably a good thing, since it provides a strong legal framework under which regulators will be able to sanction unscrupulous CSR developers who might be tempted to cold-call unsophisticated utility customers and over-promise the benefits of a small subscription in a Solar Garden.

Conclusion

The intent of Community Solar Gardens is a good one, because it allows many more people the opportunity to hedge their electricity price risk. The people in most need of such a price hedge, those living on small fixed incomes, generally do not have both the home ownership and credit that installing a solar system requires. So I’m glad to see Colorado pioneering this concept, and it will be very interesting to see how CSGs and the market for their subscriptions evolve when the final bill passes. With luck, and a few people emailing Claire Levy, the bill’s sponsor, that final bill will have been amended to exclude ground-mounted Community Solar Gardens, and help preserve Colorado open space.

I also hope that some among the majority of my readers who are not in Colorado will suggest your own legislators consider local variations of this idea.

Tom Konrad PhD CFA

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Is There a Tradeoff Between Economics and the Environment?

Tom Konrad Ph.D.

California’s RETI process lends insight into the near-term prospects of Solar, Wind, Geothermal, and Biomass.  

In September, California’s Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) released their Phase 2A report, which outlined potential transmission corridors to collect renewable energy from Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) that had been identified in previous phases.  As part of Phase 2A, they also screened each CREZ for environmental impact, and the potential difficulty of obtaining land for renewable energy development.  

I previously looked at the results from Phase 1A and gained some insight into the cost of renewable energy technologies.  However, what renewable energy projects actually get built has to do with a lot more than just economics.  If it raises too many environmental concerns, such as infringing on endangered Mojave Ground Squirrel habitat, it isn’t going to get built.

Drawing on the spreadsheet "Supplemental Materials, CREZ Data" I put together the following charts, graphing the economics of each type of renewable energy in each CREZ against the expected environmental impact of that CREZ.  

Each circle represents one type of renewable energy at one of 35 CREZs.  Concentric circles in different colors appear where a single CREZ offers multiple types of renewable energy development.  The only difference between the two graphs is the size of the circles.  In the first graph, circle sizes represent the potential annual energy production (GWh/yr) of a CREZ, while circle sizes in the second shows power rating (MW.)  Geothermal and Biomass resources are relatively larger in the first graph because these are typically baseload technologies generating electricity near peak capacity all the time, while solar and wind are variable.

The cluster of circles in the middle right represent resources outside California: they were not rated for environmental concerns, so I assigned them an arbitrary value in the middle of the range in order to display them on the charts.

Economic/Environmental Tradeoff?

I found it surprising that there is little evidence of a tradeoff between economic viability of CREZ’s and environmental impact.  In fact, the circles in the graphs above are generally clustered along a line from the lower left (high environmental impact, bad economics) to the upper right (little environmental impact, good economics).  A tradeoff between economic viability and environmental concerns would manifest itself in a clustering along a line from the upper left (bad economics, little environmental impact) to the lower right (good economics, large environmental impact.)

Considering these four major renewable energy technologies, as they might be deployed in California, there is no real tradeoff between economics and the environment.  The best economics coincide with the least environmental impact.  If we were to include energy efficiency in the analysis, the trend would be even more pronounced: energy efficiency has the best economic profile of all, yet avoids the use of energy and hence does less harm to the environment.

The exception here is biomass.  The small green dots don’t show a pronounced trend in any direction, meaning that there may be some tradeoff for biomass.  Such a tradeoff would not be surprising, because harvesting plant matter on a large scale is bound to have significant ecosystem impacts.  Note that Biomass here does not include such technologies as waste to energy, which can be environmentally benign, or even an improvement compared to land filling.  In this study, the biomass in remote regions that do not yet have transmission, since lack of sufficient transmission was one of the requirements to be a CREZ.

With clean energy, it may actually be possible to do well while doing good.

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Solar Stocks

In May, I went to Solar 2009.

One panel I attended led to a series of articles on Solar stocks:

  • The outlook for solar stocks
  • Why First Solar (FSLR) is a risky bet.
  • Why Solar Millenium may have what it takes.
  • I also particpated, with presentations on the best incentives for solar investments, and with an analysis of large scale electricity storage, as well as alternative renewable electricity integration strategies.

    Charles also attended, and took a look at the implications of the removal of the $2000 cap on the residential Investment Tax Credit.

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    Concentrating Solar Power: An In-Depth Look

    I recently interviewed several industry participants and research scientists about Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) and associated thermal storage. 
    Several articles came out of these interviews:

    Why Concentrating Solar Power Should not Try to be Coal

    The Solar Projects that Won’t be Built

    What the Future of Concentrated Solar Power Might Look Like (This one made the folks at Ausra uncomfortable, and so they asked to respond.)

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    Transport Fuels and Solar Technologies: Bird’s Eye View

    For my last couple AltEnergyStocks Columns, I’ve been taking a step back and looking at how we can get an understanding of the broad trends of energy technologies. Last week, I added to the Visual comparison of Electricity Generation Technologies I did last spring with a new Visual Comparison of Transport Fuels.

    Following up, today I published a look at the varius solar technologies through the lens of their applications.

    Before we go back to looking at trees, I hope you enjoy this look at the forest.

    (and don’t miss the National Tour of Solar Homes next Saturday)

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    Denver Tour of Solar Homes Sneak Peak; links to National Tour

    Preview the Denver Tour of Solar Homes Online


    The Denver area Tour of Solar Homes takes place in less than a month, and this year you can preview some of the buildings involved online. 
    Check out the Sneak Preview on the right-hand side of the
    Tour of Solar Homes page on the CRES Web site

    .

     

    The 2007 Tour of Solar Homes will take place on Saturday, October 6 in Denver and most locations around the state.  However, some of the activities are slightly different. 
    The Boulder tour will take place on Saturday, September 30. 
    And the tour in Pueblo will span two days: October 6 – 7. 
    See a complete listing of solar home tours in Colorado on the American Solar Energy Society Web site.

     

    National Solar Tour

     

    Outside of Colorado, people you can find tour in your own community by visiting the National Solar Home Tour website.

     

    Volunteers Needed for the Tour of Solar Homes October 6

    CRES needs volunteers to help with the Denver Metro-Area Tour of Solar Homes on Saturday, October 6.  If you step forward, you will assist homeowner with visitors.   

    There are two shifts: morning from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and afternoon from noon to 4 p.m.  

    Volunteers are welcome to spend the half-day they are not working touring homes themselves. Volunteers are also invited to attend a workshop free of charge from 6 – 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4 titled "Solar Photovoltaics and Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards Program" and presented by Jeff Scott of SolSource and Juliea Gauthier of Xcel Energy.  The
    workshops take place at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Visitor’s Center at 15013 Denver West Parkway in Golden, which is two blocks west of the Denver West Marriott at I-70 and Denver West.

    Following the workshop, veteran volunteer John Avenson will give a brief orientation for volunteers about the duties the day of the
    Tour of Solar Homes
    . To volunteer, contact Patty Roberts via email at: patty at pacificmillimeter dot com

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    Visual Comparison of Electricity Generation Technologies

    I just put together a couple graphs for a talk I’m giving on Monday to give people a visual feel of the various technologies for generating electricity.  These come with a gigantic caveat: the numbers are far from precise.

    With changing technologies, it’s impossible to represent any of this with a single number anyway.  I’m trying to show how the technologies compare to each other, and I used four parameters:

    • Cost ($/MWh),
    • Availability (better the closer the profile of the technology matches a normal demand curve (wind is bad, baseload is okay, dispatchable is best, solar),
    • Emissions (and I count waste storage when it comes to nuclear),
    • Bubble sizes represent the size and durability of the resource (I’ve tried to combine in one number how much power we can get from the resource, but also how long supplies of fuel will last.) 

    In both charts, the “best” technologies are in the upper left (low cost, low emissions, and available when we need them.)

    I know that I’m going to upset a lot of people because I was too harsh with their favorite technology, so feel free and comment on the numbers I’m using, but also please provide references for where you get your numbers.  Most of these are off the top of my head, so their accuracy is admittedly questionable.   Here are the numbers I used to make the graphs.

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    CitizenRE:REvisited

    There is an excellently researched article on CitizenRE (also see my previous blog entry which has been in my top posts constantly since January) on Renewable Energy Access by Jeffery Wolfe of groSolar.  As the CEO of a solar installer/distributer, he is rightly worried about CitizenRE’s ability to cannibalize his business…. especially if they sign a bunch of people up, and then go bust.

    This is a valid concern, both for groSolar and those of us who want the solar industry as a whole to grow and succeed.  My thought on this is if you are seriously considering installing solar on your home yourself, you should go ahead and buy it from an established solar contractor.  There are many uncertainties with CitizenRE, and the most surprising result would be if they actually get their plant running and start installing solar on people’s homes on time in late 2007.  If they do get everything working, 2009 or 2010 before a customer sees his/her solar panels is much more like it.

    That does not mean, however, that no one should sign up.  As I constantly point out, rooftop PV is a lousy investment for an individual from a financial standpoint.  If you have a mortgage, do yourself a favor and use that $8,000 you were thinking of spending on PV and pay down your mortgage instead.  If you really want to spend money to do something for the planet, give your friends some CFLs, get an efficient car, use public transit, or, use that money to buy the stock of carefully selected renewable energy companies or income funds.  Buying stocks always puts your money at risk, but it will take 20-30 years to even recoup your investment when you put up a PV system.  You can do all these things in addition to signing up with CitizenRE (or future companies which I expect will be offering PV via the rental model within a year.)  If they actually come through with the panels they have promised, you and the environment will be even better off.

    One other counter to Mr. Wolfe’s argument is that CitizenRE management thinks that they will eventually be up and running, and they are spending money to support the marketing effort get FRA’s signed.   It will probably take a lot longer than they are saying (these things always do) but they clearly think that they have a decent chance at pulling it off eventually.

    Other good blogs to read up on CitizenRE: SolarKismet, Sietch Blog.  They’re both quite skeptical, and I think that’s healthy.  For myself, I consider money spent on solar panels to be money that could be better spent on other green endeavors.  So what if the skeptics are right?  If I want to invest in solar, I’ll buy a portfolio of the better solar manufacturers out there: they’re volatile, but I expect the payback to be a lot shorter than the 20-30 years I expect from PV on my roof.  In the meantime, signing up with CitizenRE costs me nothing.

    Disclosure: I have signed up as a CitizenRE distributor.  To date, I have not signed a single FRA (Forward Rental Agreement) because I have better uses for my time than sales.    The CitizenRE links in this blog are referral links For Frank Knight, who has agreed to make a donation to an environmental charity if CitizenRE actually pulls it off and you click through one of the links here.

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    Holistic Approaches to Energy Problems

    H. L. Mencken said, “For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong.”  When it comes to solving the problems of peak oil and global warming, I also think that the loudest barking is up the wrong tree.  We look for the quick fix, trying to find a substitute energy source that allows us to change the way we do things little as possible, when the real problem is actually what we’re doing, not how we’re doing it.   We need holistic solutions, not quick fixes.

    Too abstract?  Here are some concrete examples:

     Problem: Peak Oil

    Quick fixes: Ethanol and slight increases in vehicle efficiency standards.

    Holistic solutions: Change our driving culture and infrastructure, by changing the way car use is priced from fixed charges to a per mile basis (“Pay as you drive”).   Removing subsidies to use cars when other forms of transport are available, and redesigning our cities to make them easier to get around on foot, bike, and public transport.  Like other holistic solution, all these steps increase safety and reduce congestion, reduce obesity and associated health problems, as well as reducing the use of gasoline.

    Problem: Wind and Solar are intermittent resources, but coal produces too much CO2 and natural gas prices are rising rapidly.

    Quick Fixes: Nuclear power and “Clean” Coal.

    Holistic Solutions: Shift our demand for electricity to times when it is available, by using time of use pricing, energy storage and demand alignment, and distributed energy storage such as plug in hybrid vehicles.

    Investing opportunities:On thing that’s striking about these examples is it’s much easier to find investment opportunities in the quick fixes than in the holitistic solutions.  To invest in ethanol, you can just buy ADM or one of the multitude of ethanol stocks that have been going public recently, but I have yet to come up with a satisfactory way to invest in better urban planning (except buy a house in a walkable community, which is something I’m planning on doing this summer.   Stapleton is the community.  I currently live there, but I’ve been renting and waiting for the end of the housing bubble.  I actually don’t think that housing is going to go up again any time soon, but I’m tired of waiting.) 

    The investment landscape is a little better when it comes to energy management.  Itron and Siemens both have divisions that help utilities manage their grids better, and there are many battery and other energy storage companies to choose from.  Still, it’s a lot harder to pick through battery companies than to just buy a nuclear powered utility or uranium miner.

    Holistic solutions, by their nature, have weak boundaries… the benefits tend to be diffuse, and spread over society as a whole, so it is difficult to charge fairly for them.  This, I think, is why there are so few companies pursuing them when they can pursue a quick fix that they can charge for up front.  

    Companies have an obligation to their shareholders to make money.  It’s our job, as human beings, to work towards regulations that make it easier for companies to make money with holistic solutions that actually solve the problem than it is to make money with quick fixes that just cover the problem up.

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    No Fun at Solarfun (except for the insiders)

    Here’s an excellent aritcle on TheStreet.com by Kevin Kelleher comparing two recent Chinese solar IPOs: Trina Solar and Solarfun Holdings.  The only investors having fun at SolarFun were the insiders who managed to allocate themselves a pile of below market cost stock right before the IPO.

    Not only does management seem more interested in packing away loot for themselves, but they also haven’t spent too much time looking for ways to deal with a well known problem for solar manufacturers: securing silicon.

     This just re-emphasizes the point that doing your homework when trying to pick stocks can pay large dividends (and help avoid losses.)  Honest and competent management can make the difference between a wildly profitbale company and a real dog.

     Thanks to Phil van Hake for the link.

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    Solar panels for the price of the electricity

    Many of us would like to have put solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on our home, and generate our own Citizenre Corporationelectricity.  Until now, I’ve always told people that they have better uses for their money.  Even with the recent extension of the federal tax credit until the end of  2008, and (in Colorado) the rebates being offered by Xcel Energy in order to meet their Amendment 37 requirements for customer sited solar electric, the return on investment for the electricity generated at current prices (about $8 per watt for the panels & system; $4.50 per watt rebates from Xcel, and a $2000 federal energy credit), a 4 kW system only returns 1.4% per year in electricity savings.  (I got these numbers from a workshop presented by Jeff Lyng, who will be vice-chair of The American Solar Energy Society next year, and calculated the return from those.  Jeff was speaking as a consultant for Xcel on their solar rebates program.)   To me, it makes more sense to invest in renewable energy or energy efficiency companies, which are likely to yield a higher return (or put the money in a CD and use the interest to buy RECs or give away CFLs).

    Until now.  CitizenRE is offering to install photovoltaic panels on you house, and charge you only for the electricity.  Better yet, the price you will pay is equal to the same price (or less) than your utility charges.   If you like, you can lock in your current price for electricity for up to 25 years (although 5 is standard.)

    You do still have to get power from your utility company… there is no provision for battery backup, and they require a $500 deposit which you don’t get back until the end of the contract.  Also, you are only renting the panels from CitizenRE, but you are responsible for damage to them from other than normal wear (as you would be for any other rental), so they suggest that you include them in your homeowner’s policy.

    Still sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  Here’s the big catch: they are signing people up now, but they plan to manufacture the panels at their own plant, which will not start operation until at least September 2007 (and, being a cynic, I’d expect further delays.)  Realistically, don’t be surprised if you don’t have your panels until mid-2008.  But for people who don’t have an extra $10,000 burning a hole in their pocket, you probably weren’t going to get a system until 2008 or later anyway.

    This is probably not the only place you’ve heard about them… I’ve read several other blogs (here, here, here, and here. ) about them so far, and part of the reason for that is they are using a multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) (although they don’t like to call it that).  I don’t think any of the blogs I linked to back there are MLM-ers… I also came across several blogs like that (most of which had clearly been started for the sole purpose of selling CitizenRE), and decided not to do them the favor.  I’m not generally a fan of MLM, but I have to admit that it’s probably the best way to reach a lot of homeowners quickly.   As part of my research for this blog, I decided to sign up (it was incredibly easy… I did have to get 4/5 on a quiz, but three of the questions were general ones about solar and electricity, so I only had to guess right on one out of two, which I managed on the first try (but I could have tried again after 2 hours)… they have tutorials for people who are serious about this stuff, but who has time for that?)

    Instead, I spent my research time reading the Forward Rent Agreement (FRA) contract their customers have to sign, which is where I got some of the above caveats (also note that they do reporting through a land telephone line, so if you sign up, you have to maintain telephone service for the duration of the contract.  That might be a problem for me, since I use Voice over IP.)

    I also browsed through their marketing material, which was available after I took their little test.  After all, if putting solar on your own home is not a good financial proposition, why are they paying their associates $150 for each sale, plus 4% or more of the electricity sold in order to put panels on your house for you?  Here’s what I concluded:

    1. They will have lower costs than an individual homeowner.  Most of us have to pay contractors around $8 a watt for our systems.  Since they will be hiring their own dedicated installers, and install only equipment that they manufacture themselves, they think they can do it for around $4.50 per watt, a price which (In Colorado Xcel territory) would be covered completely by Xcel’s Solar*Rewardsprogram referenced above.
    2. As a business, they can deduct 30% of the full amount of the installation cost under the production tax credit, and it is not capped at $2000, as it is for homeowers.
    3. Also as a business, they are eligible for accelerated depreciation, which basically amounts to an added massive tax deduction.
    4. They get interest on your $500 deposit.  Not much, but if you have 1000 deposits, it starts adding up to real money.   1/15/07: Via PeakEnergy and The WorldWatch Institute I read that interest on the deposit is credited to the consumer.  Checking the associates’ website, it says: “Deposits are invested into 1 year treasury notes. Interest is compounded for the benefit of the customer.”

    Starting to come clear?  By my ballpark estimate, if it costs them as much as $6 a watt to install a system in Colorado, they will be able to collect at least that much back under the various tax programs and rebates, and any money they collect from you, the customer, will be pure profit.

    So it sounds like a legit business model to me.  In fact, when you look at the above, it’s somewhat surprising that no one has done it before.  If you still want to sign up (and if you want solar on your roof, this seems like the best financial deal currently on offer).

    I don’t want to sign up anyone myself… I already have two full time jobs as an investment advisor and environmental activist, but if you use this link, for Frank Knight, who has agreed to make a donation to an environmental charity for any referrals (but not untl you get panels and he gets paid.  Contact me if you have a particular charity you would like to see the money go to.

    If you want to become an associate, here’s the link for that.

    If you think this whole thing is a scam, and want a random associate, go directly to CitizenRE (there will still be as sales commission paid to some associate, but it will be someone assigned at random.)

    I never thought I’d be telling people they could put solar on their roof (in an economical way) so soon.  Keep in mind, this does cost more than your normal electricity bill, because you pay for insurance for the panels, as well as losing the interest on your security deposit, but if you don’t plan on moving, and expect electricity prices to go up a lot, you may come out ahead anyway, because they let you lock in your electricity rate for the duration of the contract (up to 25 years, at your option.)

    By the way, I think I read an article recently about a company that’s doing the same thing with solar hot water in Canada (only charging for the price of natural gas not used), but I can’t seem to Google it.  If you saw it too, please let me know.

    (Note: apparently you can avoid the deposit if you sign a 25 year contract.  I’m not sure  if that’s a better deal or not… how many of us stay in one house (or even two) for 25-years?  Also, five to ten years from now, the technology will probably reach the point where it does make sense to borrow the money and put up your own panels.  I guess I’m just not a big fan of 25 year contracts for anything.  Mortgages, for instance.)

    12/14 I’ve been thinking about this some more, and here are a couple other things to be wary of:

    1. They say they’ll start production of panels in September 2007.   But these things always take longer than expected.  If you sign a contract with them, you’re basically saying that you’re not going to use your roof for anything else while you wait.  At best, you’ll have your panels a year from now, but at worst, they might end up stringing you along for years, when you could have gotten solar from some newer outfit that came along in the meantime… if this model really works, it won’t bee too long before they have competition.
    2. Don’t expect to make money as an associate (salesperson) before 2009, or even later.  A lot of associates are already paying (out of their own pockets) for classified ads, but they don’t start earning any money until systems are installed on homes.  And who is to say that your sales are going to be the first in line… as far as I can tell, they can install systems in whatever order they choose, which means that the location with the highest rebates will probably get all the first panels produced.  Basically, the better a financial deal this is for the customer, the later they are likely to get their systems.  If you are considering signing up as an associate, treat it like a hobby, and don’t pour a lot of money into it.  Frank may be kicking in $75 to charity for each referral I give him, but at least he’s not putting a lot of money in up front… he does not pay unless he is paid.

    You may also hear about the CitizenRE offering under the product name ReNu, as well as a couple of thier marketing websites www.jointhesolution.com, and www.powur.com.  The /xxxx at the end of the url is the associate’s ID which they use to track which associate brought in that particular customer.

    2/14/07: Given the recent growth in controversy about CitizenRE, I’ve written a followup article here. 

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