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Renting Solar Panels

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There is a lot of internet hype out CitizenRE, a multi-level marketing company that intends to rent solar panels to homeowners for the same price of electricity you pay to your electric company. Sounds great, right? Low or no money down and a solar system on every roof. Maybe too good…

Most interested people have either environmental intentions, economic motivations, or both. Solar electricity is your LAST priority for the environment and your bottom line. Solar is sexy, cool, and holds great promise, BUT if you weighed the costs and benefits, for the average homeowner, there are many things they should be otherwise doing - buying a more efficient car, putting in CFL lightbulbs, becoming a vegetarian, etc.

There’s always a balance between getting in on a “deal” and “too good to be true.” A deal on a car is one thing. Everyone buys a car, understands what a car does, how they’re made, where they come from, and has relatively good information about the transaction. How many people understand solar panels, how they work, are made, etc?

There is very little concrete information about this company other than “rah rah” and hype. They are recruiting salespeople through newspapers, Craigslist, and blogs. There is very little critical analysis, but here are two blogs that aren’t just sliced-bread:

EE/RE Investing (somewhat supportive of CitizenRE)

Renewable Energy Now (skeptical of CitizenRE)

I am a skeptic of CitizenRE in particular (though the business model will certainly emerge in the future). Here are the big questions:

1. Where is this 500 MW plant being built and is it under construction now? Where are they getting scarce raw silicon supplies? Why hasn’t anyone in the industry heard of this plant? Where is the money coming from?

2. Where are they developing an installer network? Will they be NABCEP certified? Why would existing dealers with their own businesses want to join this network?

3. They claim to be able to install in any state with net metering and a retail price over 7 cents/kWh. As such, they are willing to accept wildly variable profit rates - different electric companies and states have very different economic conditions. Is this realistic? Are they really doing business in every state with net metering?

4. Two companies in the US offer this same “rental” model on a commercial level (SunEdison, MMA Renewable Ventures) but only at a scale of at least 500 kilowatts or larger, i.e. over 200 times bigger than a home. This model is still emerging and developing and other large companies are considering getting into it on large installation. Why would CitizenRE have struck upon something that these companies haven’t at a size 1/200 of what is typically economical?

5. Why is there such a lack of information? Wouldn’t transparency help them answer these kinds of questions to the industry? Why has no one in the industry heard of them? Why aren’t they at solar conferences presenting their information? Why the hype and unrealistic dates and targets? (Proprietary jargon doesn’t cut it - the construction of a manufacturing plant can’t really be hidden.)

More to come as I put out feelers to some industry contacts…