How can solar companies get new customers? Cold, hard cash

Companies have made great strides in offering third-party financing to bring solar and energy efficiency to residential consumers with little or no money down. Between power purchase agreements and leasing plans that require no upfront costs, consumers can enjoy solar for less than their utility's electric rates in many locations, especially when incentives are taken into account.  

As a result, many consumers view it as free. Free is great, and most people are thrilled to get solar for free. I'd argue, however, that third-party financing models haven't gone far enough. I'd like to see third-party financing that is better than free by paying me money up front for all of expected monthly savings over the life of my lease or PPA.

I suspect many consumers would prefer "better than free" financing as well, giving up monthly savings and continuing to pay their current and future normal utility bill rates for a lump of cash today. Here's why.

Consumers hate the future

In a typical third-party financing arrangement, I pay a solar provider a steady amount per month for a lease or per kWh under a PPA. The amount I pay the solar company is less than the reduction of my utility energy bill, so I save money. My payments to my solar lease provider over time are enough to pay for the installation (for which the installer is paid up front) and cover their returns on investment, so my solar installer and financier (which can be one and the same) do fine economically as well.

Historical investment returns to the average American are pretty modest, such as the 3 percent real (i.e., inflation adjusted) return on the S&P 500 over the last 30 years and barely-above-inflation long-term returns on home ownership.

Yet, despite that consumers historically have accepted such low returns on investments, including stocks and real estate, they demand very high returns on many financial decisions. Numerous academic studies confirm that consumers hate the future, or more accurately, don't value it very highly, at least economically. For example, in a study on refrigerators, half of consumers would not pay $40 more upfront to generate savings of $22 per year on their energy bill. To a company, this behavior would sound like lunacy. Economists regularly quantify this type of behavior in a metric called the discount rate, which is just a percentage used to convert tomorrow's dollars into today's dollars. High discount rates make future dollars worth less.

This problem is more than academic. Low adoption levels plague energy-efficiency programs, even when incentives and overall value are quite high -- the typical post-incentive return on solar in California is 10 percent or higher, while simple energy efficiency investments such as light bulbs can pay back in less than a year. But most consumers just can't get past the price tag. That's one reason adoption rates remain challenged. On-bill finance programs for energy efficiency, for example, are considered top-tier when they can exceed a measly 1 percent per year in customer uptake (PDF).

Compare this to corporate discount rates. Most firms pursue returns 2 to 10 percent above their cost of capital, depending on the risk of the cash flow. R&D expenditures, which have a high chance of failure, are often discounted much more.

So what has this meant for solar? Traditional programs that use incentives but not financing largely have been ineffective. Zero-down-payment financing has been vastly more effective in attracting residential customers, yet still only has helped bring us to the current approximate 0.5 percent adoption level. Of the 5 to 10 percent of consumers for whom solar makes economic sense on its current energy pricing fundamentals, a small subset -- only about 5 to 10 percent or about 0.5 percent overall -- have taken steps to install systems.

Going beyond no-money-down solar with "better than free" financing

If one believes the data about consumer discount rates, even with "free" no-money-down financing, solar providers are missing a huge discount rate arbitrage opportunity on a product (a 30-year savings stream on a utility bill) that consumers don't value very highly, or at least discount aggressively.

Other industries have caught on to this discrepancy and offer products that arbitrage discount rates between consumers and companies, such as firms that offer to buy out annuities, pensions or any other future payout with an immediate lump sum payment. Most lottery winners today also prefer and accept upfront payments that are worth much less than the value of their 20-year payout, by any metric. A 2012 Business Insider reader poll found that 88 percent of respondents would take the lump sum option.

Therein lies the win-win-win opportunity. Third-party solar companies make money, consumers get an upfront cash windfall they value and rates of solar adoption (should) jump through the roof.

Here's my proposal to third-party financiers on behalf of consumers everywhere: I'd like a product that maximizes my upfront payment, which I love, while minimizing the long-term cash flow from savings that I receive over time, which I don't care about nearly as much as I probably should.  

Being a good consumer, I've tried to calculate my value to you, and I'd like it paid up front. But also note, as any good lottery winner will tell you, I'll likely settle for a lot less if you can give me cash now.

Here's my pricelist for a rooftop example: Please pay me $1,200 for the right to put a solar PV installation on my rooftop. I'll be happy to keep paying the total monthly cost of my regular utility bill, even if it's technically split between the utility bill and a solar leasing/PPA bill.

A pricelist for a rooftop solar example.

Using a reasonable 10 percent corporate discount rate (nominal), some favorable incentives for the solar consumer, and a mere 2 percent spread between the historical growth of electricity prices and escalation of solar PPA/lease pricing, I estimate my solar PV savings versus my former utility bill has a net present value (NPV) of more than $2,400! (This is after third-party finance, so represents value after the installer/financier/servicer have taken its cut of profit.)

A solar provider could offer half of this, or less, and still have something enticing for a consumer. A typical consumer with a "mere" 20 percent discount rate should settle for a sum of around $1,400. The research cited earlier as well as an informal poll of my colleagues at RMI suggest that most would settle for less even than that. The implication is that there's nearly $2,500 of "lost" or misplaced value -- $1,400 or less of which could go to a consumer, the balance of which could be profit for the third-party solar company.

The graphic below shows how converting the savings strip to upfront payments reveals this massive value opportunity for solar providers. In finance, this conversion is known as a sale of a "forward strip."

A conceptual diagram demonstrating the value created through an upfront payment.

Solar companies, put your money where your mouth is and grow your market

It's time for some inventive solar lessors to rise to the challenge and offer up money in our pockets today. Because of my and many other consumers' seemingly irrational discount rate dynamics, we're more than happy to be "exploited" to allow others to take advantage of our perceived versus real discount rates.

These lump sum payments today could mean significant returns to solar companies tomorrow, not to mention the best opportunity for transformational market growth.

Editor's note: To learn more about this topic and the convergence of sustainability and technology, be sure to check out VERGE SF Oct. 14-17.

Solar installation image by bikeriderlondon via Shutterstock.