Solar providers’ panel lease offer woos Texas homeowners

Though Houston is plenty hot, the solar industry has struggled to break into the local homeowner market.

Renewable energy advocates hope new leasing and energy buyback programs being introduced by retail electric companies will help spur more homeowners to go solar.

This week, Green Mountain Energy launched a rewards program that lets homeowners lease solar panels for a price that includes installation, insurance and maintenance costs.

The monthly lease payment varies depending upon the size of the system and how much the homeowner pays upfront.

Green Mountain estimates that the monthly payment for a 4-kilowatt solar array would be $110 to $145 per month in Houston and would save $50 to $60 per month on electricity bills.

Electric companies and those hawking solar panels hope such leasing plans will encourage more green-minded homeowners to install solar panels, even if it’s still more expensive than buying power off the grid.

“We really want to incentivize more people to go solar,” said Helen Brauner, senior vice president of marketing at Green Mountain Energy.

Green Mountain emphasizes that the amount of energy a solar system generates varies significantly based on the kind of equipment used, orientation of the home, design of the rooftop and the amount of shade present.

But with that caveat, the company estimates a 4-kilowatt array in Texas produces 425 to 475 kilowatt-hours per month — a little less than half the power demand of a household averaging 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month.

Leases are for 20 years. At the end of the lease period, homeowners have the option to buy the panels at market value, Brauner said.

The leasing complements the company’s renewable rewards rate program, which pays solar-equipped customers who generate more energy than they use. It pays retail rates for the first 500 kilowatt-hours per month of electricity that a customer feeds back to the electricity grid, and half of retail for excess energy beyond 500 kilowatt-hours per month.

The retail rate under the program now is 11.9 cents per kilowatt-hourin Houston, and several hundred customers have signed up statewide since it launched in 2009, Brauner said.

Houston-based Reliant Energy also is exploring options for making solar more affordable, including a leasing program, said Shirley Rouse, vice president of product innovation.

NRG Energy, Reliant’s parent company and one of the nation’s largest power plant operators, bought Green Mountain last year.

Reliant has had a buyback program for customers generating their own electricity since March 2009. The company currently pays 8.5 cents per kilowatt-hour in areas served by Houston-based transmission and distribution company CenterPoint Energy.

Aside from the high costs of buying solar panels and systems, some Texans trying them have hit resistance from homeowner associations that say the panels are unsightly, hurt property values or violate deed restrictions.

State lawmakers are considering two bills, HB 362 and SB 238, that would prevent homeowner associations from prohibiting the installation of solar panels. Several other states have such laws.

If the legislation passes, Texas solar companies expect more competition vying for homeowner dollars.

“It will bring a flood of companies from California to the state of Texas,” said Ralph Parrott, president of Houston-based Alternative Power Solutions.