Rooftop Revenue

Government helps big corporations make billions off green energy. How about cutting the average family in on the deal?

Like a lot of aging Baby Boomers these days, Rob Robinson and Sherrill Berger of Washington, D.C., are what you might call semiretired. That is to say, they work when they can, at whatever short-term gigs they can rustle up—he in communications, she in administration and fund-raising. Otherwise they struggle to get by on income from a small rental property they own. That rental property and the home they live in are their only assets.

A few years ago they made a smart move that has helped them get a better return on those assets. They bought a three-kilowatt solar electric system and hired a contractor to install it on the roof of their home. The solar unit was $24,000, but a generous renewable energy grant from the D.C. government and a 30 percent federal tax credit for renewable energy reduced their net out-of-pocket cost to around $5,000.

That investment saves the couple about $1,500 a year on their electric bill. But the financial advantage doesn’t end there; since they are producing green energy and feeding it back to the electric grid, they actually make money, around $1,200 annually. In just three years the couple has earned back their original investment, and Sherrill now uses the $325 quarterly checks to pay the mortgage and phone bill. “I never realized how great it would be,” she says. The solar panels have been low maintenance so far (the technology is less complex than the average air conditioner). Indeed, things worked out so well on the house that they recently installed a second solar system, on their rental property. After the system is paid off, they expect a combined return of about $4,500 a year off their electric bill and close to $3,600 in additional income—and those returns are guaranteed by contract for five years. Rob and Sherrill don’t just use solar to help the environment, they also use it to help make ends meet, and increase the value of their only assets.

A solar investment opportunity like this, in which owners get paid a fixed amount for the green energy they produce, is one many hard-pressed Americans would doubtlessly welcome for themselves. With CDs paying less than 1 percent and the stock market highly volatile, it’s hard to think of another savings vehicle that offers the same secure rate of return. Such opportunities are desperately needed, with incomes flat, jobs in short supply, millions of homes under water, and most Baby Boomers financially ill-prepared for retirement. And with the price of solar panels having plummeted (if Rob and Sherrill were to buy their equipment today, it would cost them half as much), more and more Americans can afford to get in the game.

Trouble is, such opportunities aren’t available to the vast majority of Americans, and won’t be anytime soon without changes in energy policy. There’s plenty of money to be made producing solar energy. But the way the rules are currently written, corporations, not individuals, reap the gains.

The renewable energy business has exploded in recent years. The growth has been mainly in large, corporate- owned wind and solar farms in places like Texas and Nevada. These ventures have generally been built to take advantage of various government incentives, including billions in federal grants and tax breaks and, at the state level, mandates called Renewable Portfolio Standards. RPSs require utilities to supply a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. To meet these requirements, utilities sign long-term contracts to buy power from the wind and solar farms or renewable energy “credits” that the farms generate when they put the energy on the grid (the credits cover the higher cost of producing energy from renewable sources like solar compared to, say, coal).

Financing for these projects has generally come from major Wall Street banks looking for lower tax burdens on their huge profits. More recently, cash-rich firms like Google and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway have been putting big money into solar ventures, attracted by rates of return of 15 percent or higher. “A solar power project with a long-term sales agreement could be viewed as a machine that generates revenue,” an attorney who helped arrange a solar deal for Buffett told Bloomberg this spring.

Buffett, of course, has famously complained of the unfairness of a tax system that lets him pay a smaller portion of his income in taxes than his secretary. But a similar unfairness governs U.S. energy policy: for the most part, only corporations and rich guys like Buffett get to invest in solar energy production ventures that promise high long-term rates of returns. Exceptions can be found only in D.C. and a handful of states like Colorado, California, New Jersey, and Vermont, where governments have put two key policies in place. The first is the enactment of rules that require utilities to accept onto the grid any power homeowners and other small players produce themselves, a practice known as “net metering.” The second is the setting of renewable portfolio standards that are designed to allow average families to be paid for that extra green energy they produce, just as the big boys are. Since late 2008, D.C. has had both, which is how Rob and Sherrill got into the market.

Yet even in places like D.C. and New Jersey that are friendly to small-scale green energy producers, big corporations are muscling into the market. In the last two years, Wall Street behemoths like Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Merrill Lynch have joined forces with new national solar panel leasing companies like SolarCity and Sungevity to offer homeowners a hassle-free way to go solar. For little or no money down, these companies, often operating out of big-box retailers like Home Depot, will put their company-owned solar panels on your roof. In return, you sign a long-term lease to buy electricity from the company, usually at a lower rate than what you are currently paying for power from your utility. For homeowners interested in only lowering their electric bills, it’s not a bad deal. But it’s the leasing companies and their Wall Street financiers who reap the biggest gains, by pocketing the tax credits and the revenue earned from selling the green energy back to the grid. That is money that could be going to homeowners if they knew they had a choice (which the leasing companies seldom tell them about).

Is it really possible to create a system that allows the great mass of ordinary people to earn a return selling the energy they produce? Consider the case of Germany. In 1991, the country determined that the best and most equitable way to spur the development of renewable energy was to incentivize its own citizens to produce it. So it created a system of so-called “feed-in tariffs,” whereby any homeowner, farmer, church, or small business owner can set up a solar, wind, or geothermal production facility on their property and send the excess energy back to the grid with virtually no restrictions or permits required. These small-scale producers get fixed, long-term contracts for their energy designed to deliver a profit of 7 to 9 percent. As a consequence, nearly 900,000 Germans have become renewable energy entrepreneurs, and Germany itself now gets more than 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

Making feed-in tariffs work in the United States is tough because, unlike in Germany, regulatory authority here is fragmented among federal, state, and local agencies. Still, plenty can be done to make the American system more amenable to small-scale green energy producers.

First, every state should require that utilities allow net metering so that small-scale suppliers—homeowners as well as renters, small businesses, and nonprofits—have the basic ability to send any excess energy they produce onto the grid. This right to “produce your own juice” would seem like a no-brainer. But most utilities are deeply resistant to the idea because the more power comes from many small producers, the more the whole centralized- production-and-control business model that has defined the industry for more than a century is threatened.

Second, all states should have renewable portfolio standards with carve-outs for small-scale green producers. This too would seem like common sense. But it runs against the interests of the big solar and wind companies and their Wall Street backers, who want to keep the government-subsidized profits from green energy for themselves. And sadly, major environmental groups, eager to get as much renewable energy on line as fast as possible, have advocated strenuously for the federal subsidies that enrich the big green power companies but have put much less effort into lobbying for changes that allow average people to join in.

Third, more should be done to give individuals the choice to own, rather than lease, solar panels, so they can reap the greater financial rewards. Right now, even those who know they have the option are often dissuaded from buying their own panels because of the up-front costs. A big part of the problem is that the contractors who sell and install solar systems for people like Rob and Sherrill—typically local firms that don’t have big Wall Street money behind them—can’t necessarily arrange financing for those systems, especially for people with lower incomes or whose mortgages are under water. Such financing, however, could arise naturally in the marketplace with some modest changes in regulations—for instance, allowing those who want to own their solar panels to pay off the purchase and installation costs as a percentage of the return on their future energy output.

The federal government could mandate many of these changes. Though the political barriers would certainly be immense—millions of unorganized homeowners are no match for the concentrated lobbying power of utilities and megabanks—the political rewards would be great, if leaders were willing to change the way they think and talk about green energy. Until now, elected officials who support renewable power have stressed its environmental benefits and potential to create “green jobs.” Yet the number of Americans who can realistically imagine themselves working in a green job is limited, whereas every American family gets an electric bill, and two out of three own their own homes. The prospect that anyone could turn an unused roof or piece of land into a moneymaking asset, and help the environment in the bargain, ought to be hugely appealing.

Americans know in their guts that an economy that relies so heavily on ever-higher levels of consumer spending and debt, as ours does, isn’t healthy. We need to become a nation of savers and producers again. Giving every American the chance to produce and sell green energy at a fair price is a good way to begin.

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Anya Schoolman

Anya Schoolman is the executive director of the Community Power Network and the president of DC Solar United Neighborhoods. She has a 2.4-kilowatt solar energy system on her roof.