Bet you didn’t know that lighting and control company Leviton is in the solar business. That’s right: As in solar panels.
The solar panels aren’t made by Leviton, but by solar panel manufacturers and leased by Leviton partner SunRun to residential customers in parts of California and New York, so far. The startup markets have been customers of San Diego Gas & Electric and Con Edison in New York. The systems will be leased by certified Leviton dealers and Leviton’s sales force.
Leviton Solar started in those states earlier this year, and the company is looking to expand into other states that have been favorable to solar system growth. Leviton wouldn’t exactly say where, but think Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Hawaii, Oregon and Colorado, for starters.
Leasing allows homeowners to get into solar with little or no money down, and there’s usually a guarantee that the cost of the lease will be less than the money saved each month on electricity costs. Leviton says in most cases, there’s a fixed lease payment that can be locked in for 20 years, with a guaranteed output on a monthly basis and trued-up annually. A maintenance agreement also comes with the lease. Monthly savings is usually in the 10 percent to 20 percent range. All systems are grid-tied—no storage batteries—for net metering, in which you effectively sell unused solar power back to the utility.
One disadvantage of leasing for homeowners is that you don’t actually own the solar panels, thereby preventing you from receiving the 30 percent federal tax credit and statewide incentives such as SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits), paid in some states by utilities to achieve renewable energy quotas. Bill Poulin, senior director of renewables-residential for Leviton, says the fixed lease rates get better for homeowners as the cost or electricity goes up over the years and the savings increase. At the end of the lease you can purchase the equipment, renew or have it removed.
Leviton’s system uses a parallel architecture that pairs every two panels with a converter so they act independently. This way, if one panel is shaded during a part of the day, it doesn’t affect the output of the entire solar array, as it can do in a series string connection. Poulin says this also offers more flexibility in the placement of the panels, because some can be placed facing east or west instead of the optimal south. This is similar to a system that uses micro-inverters on each panel to make them independent, Poulin says. The converters boost the energy from the panels and are wired one to another and to a revenue grade meter that collects data and measures the production of the panels, viewable via a web-based portal. The converters are wired to an in-house inverter that converts the DC (direct current) from the solar panels to AC (alternating current) for use in the home.
Companies like Solar Universe also offer leasing programs. Home connectivity provider Vivint offers Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), which are structured similar to leases with no money down and customers pay Vivint a monthly fee based on how much power the solar panels produce, again with a guarantee of overall savings on an electric bill.
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