Solar

It can be tricky getting solar for condos, especially those that share roof space. Often, there’s not enough space on the roof for a system that could power all the units. But there are options, depending on the individual situation.

Solar options for condos

  • Purchase or lease a system for just the common electricity.
  • Allow individuals to purchase a system for their unit. This may not be an option for everyone in the condo association, depending on the amount of roof space. Note that it’s illegal to use aesthetic reasons as a basis to prevent someone in an HOA from installing solar panels.
  • Participate in a solar garden. Also known as solar farms, these are community-owned solar installations in locations other than the owners’ homes. The gardens can be on the roofs of nearby schools or other public buildings that have sufficient space and sunlight for a solar array, or even on otherwise “unusable” land.
  • Install a solar hot water heater. When most people think of solar, they think of panels that provide electricity to a building. Another good option for condos can be a solar water heater. For more, see the Water page.

Financing

Most condo associations don’t have the money to purchase a solar system, even if it will eventually save money. Some options:

  • A lease or Power Purchase Agreement. Leases tend to commit a condo to a 10- to 25-year contract, but this option comes with no upfront costs and very quick savings: as energy costs rise every year, the cost for the electricity covered by the system would be controlled. With a Power Purchase Agreement, after a period of leasing the HOA owns the system (terms vary, of course). Solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years but generally last much longer, so if the association owns the panels at the end of 25 years, even greater savings will be achieved. Leases are hard to come by, since solar companies need investors to finance them. And it’s only worth it for the investors if certain incentives are in place. A tax credit from 2010 was extended through 2011, so that will help in securing leases.
  • A PACE program. These programs allow homeowners to finance solar and other energy-efficiency improvements through loans that are paid back as part of owners’ property taxes, making them tax-deductible and therefore more affordable. But in a condo development there are multiple owners, and they cant all be forced to opt in to the program. Condo HOA boards are likely to find the situation too complicated legally; no condo has yet used a PACE program in San Francisco, and I don’t know of any in other parts of the country. For now, the issue is moot since the programs are on hold indefinitely. However, in San Francisco the city was very interested in working with our condo to implement their PACE program, known as GreenFinanceSF. So there may be a future for these programs and condos.
  • A loan. Financing may be available to purchase solar panels; of course, you need to do the math to determine if this option makes sense.
  • Creative financing. Some condos and co-ops in New York have used creative budgeting to purchase solar systems that would eventually save money. A large California development funded solar for their common electricity in part by raising money recycling paper and cans.

Further resources

  • One Block Off the Grid (1BOG): 1BOG helps homeowners go solar by organizing group discounts, vetting solar installers, and providing objective information and advice.
  • American Solar Energy Society: The ASES is the nation’s leading association of solar professionals and advocates.
  • Solar webinars: In 2011, the Vote Solar Initiative launched a series of free webinars that anyone can access, on a range of subjects related to solar power.

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