by Susma Un (June 16, 2016) www.marketwatch.com
There has been a surge in the number of companies
willing to provide loans to homeowners
The tide has turned for solar financing.
Until recently, customers who wanted to save on their monthly electricity bills by installing rooftop solar power systems didn’t have many options. Most solar installers only offered customers the ability to lease the solar roof panels for a monthly fee, typically after signing a 20-year lease. And if customers wanted help financing the transition to solar, there were few places to turn. But that’s changed a lot in the past year.
Solar leases and similar contracts accounted for 72% of home-solar sales in 2014, up from 42% in 2011, according to GTM Research, the research arm of energy news outlet Greentech Media. But that share is projected to drop back down to 57% by 2017 because more people are now able to buy the panels, which enables consumers to own the asset at the end of the loan term and generally saves them money.
About five years ago, before the residential solar market grew, homeowners typically paid upfront for solar panels. Then, solar companies started offering leasing programs and the number of residential solar systems grew even more. Now, as people are beginning to see the benefits of owning a system, the market is responding. Companies that previously offered leases are now are also giving out loans. SolarCity, one of the largest residential solar power companies, replaced its financing program MyPower with a new solar loan program in June 2016. Sunrun, another large residential solar power company which was built around the lease model also introduced loan options for homeowners in September last year. While the lease segment continues to be more popular among its customers, the company expects the share of loans to increase. “Our mix right now in the first quarter was 85% leased, 15% cash. We expect that maybe ticks up to 20%,” the company said in an email statement.
“The solar loan market has exploded,” GTM Research said in a report. Every solar financing company that used to earlier offer leases has introduced or is planning to introduce a loan, and an entirely separate group of pure-play loan providers has formed, the report said.
And more traditional lenders, companies such as Sungage Financial in Boston and Oakland, Calif.-based Mosaic, are also seeing rapid growth in customer demand for loans to buy solar powered equipment. “We are breaking records every month, and the longer term products — the 20-year loans are doing particularly well,” said James Robison, the vice-president of marketing at Mosaic.
In some states, such as New York and Massachusetts, several local banks and credit unions are offering loans for solar as state governments are actively encouraging residential solar. This is only happening in a few states, however, and about a dozen states — including Arizona, Colorado and Louisiana — are considering dialing back the incentives they currently offer.
Mortgage provider Fannie Mae last week came out with the HomeStyle Energy Program, which allows homeowners to borrow an additional 15% to finance their solar or other energy-efficiency systems. Also, state, local governments and/or other government agencies finance projects for homeowners through the PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) program; the homeowner repays the loan via their annual property tax bills.
Ygrene, a company that provides PACE financing, has seen rapid growth in demand for solar projects, said Louis-Philippe Lalonde, the company’s CMO. Two months back, solar financing was 28% of the company’s business and it’s now about 35%, he said. The PACE program doesn’t require high credit scores and is accessible to a large number of people.
“Homeowners have so many options now,” Vikram Aggarwal, CEO of EnergySage, an online portal that helps customers search for solar panel providers. Homeowners input their requirements on the ‘solar marketplace’ and are given a whole range of options from solar companies — much like Expedia does with travel packages.
Meanwhile, costs of installing solar power are falling. Solar panel prices cost 50 cents to 60 cents a watt — down from around $4.50 a watt in 2006, according to a Deutsche Bank report. According to GTM Research, the U.S. residential solar market has grown for 15 out of the last 16 quarters.
But of course all is not bright and sunny in the solar market.
There is risk that the demand for solar could fall if prices of panels go up. Many U.S. states are considering curtailing solar-power incentives due to increasing pressure from electric utilities, The Wall Street Journal reported in March.
And the increase in the availability of funding for homeowners comes with several risks, including price transparency. With most companies offering both leasing and loan options, customers have no easy way to figure out which is more economical for them if they’re not comparing offers from multiple solar installers, Aggarwal says. He adds that not many customers are well-versed when it comes to details on how installers itemize quotes for loans versus leases and they will rely on the numbers that installers give as the best fit for their requirements. “Given that leases make better financial sense for leading solar installers, they often inflate costs of ownership and push the leasing option onto homeowners,” Aggarwal says. The company EnergySage helps standardize the way different companies present their quotes, but there is no industry mandate or requirement to present this in a certain way, as in the case of car sales.
And with more companies entering the sector, there will be increased competition, which could impact the interest rates and the way loans are structured for customers, Nicole Litvak, senior analyst of solar markets at GTM Research pointed out.
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