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'Solar Leasing' To Make Solar Power More Accessible In D.C., Md.

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Solar energy in D.C. and Maryland may be getting more affordable with a new leasing program.

One of the major barriers to solar power is the high upfront cost: as much as $21,000 for an average residential system. With a federal tax credit, that can be brought down by one-third. A D.C. rebate program used to bring the cost down to $9,000, but that program has been drastically cut as D.C. deals with budget problems.

One of the people involved helping homeowners go solar is Anya Schoolman, the president of the Mt Pleasant Solar Coop and DC SUN, the association of all the solar co-ops in the District.

"We had about 70 homes in Mt Pleasant go solar and many people had to borrow money to make that upfront payment, some people refinanced their homes or took out a second loan," Schoolman says.

One way around that is what's called "solar leasing."

Basically, a homeowner gets panels on the roof, but doesn't own them. He or she rents them, by paying for the electricity and a leasing fee.

"A homeowner can go solar with no investment," says Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity, the country's largest solar provider. "So let's say their electric bill is $200 a month. The new electric bill combined with the lease payments may add upt o $180 a month, getting to use clean power, and absolutely no investment."

SolarCity would install and maintain the panels and guarantee their electricity output. Still, Schoolman says a lease isn't as good a deal as owning solar panels yourself "because when you own it yourself, when you pay back the cost of the system, all the electricity that you produce is free."

And she says that leasing typically requires a good credit score, which she worries may lock out people who need assistance the most to go solar. Rive says customers who want to lease with SolarCity would need a FICO score of 700 or better.

"You do not need to be wealthy but you do need to pay your bills," she says.

Still Schoolman and other solar coops say solar leasing will make solar power significantly more accessible.

"I think there's a lot of people for whom the idea of putting no money up front is just immensely, immensely appealing," she says.

Rive says that since offering the solar leasing option in 2009, business has doubled every year.

The program will be available in D.C. and Maryland starting mid-February.

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