David Olds and Sarah Auerswald both live in the Mar Vista district on the west side of Los Angeles, an economically diverse neighborhood of apartment buildings and single-family homes.
Both recently installed solar arrays on their houses thanks to an innovative leasing arrangement with Open Neighborhoods, an organization from nearby Culver City that has developed what it calls "L.A.'s most affordable rooftop solar program."
Open Neighborhoods did extensive outreach in Mar Vista over the last couple of years and built a strong neighborhood presence by creating a community social networking site and a wireless grid that is free of charge for residents who sign onto their solar lease program.
"I'd wanted solar for awhile," says Auerswald, "but it was a stretch to purchase and install my own system. It was through the Mar Vista wireless social network that I learned about the option of leasing."
Open Neighborhoods partners with SolarCity, a solar provider that installs and maintains the panels. In return for residents leasing their solar arrays, SolarCity gets the energy-efficiency rebates from the state. Between 30 and 40 homes in Mar Vista were involved in the initial solar effort.
Auerswald had her solar panels, below, installed about two years ago. "It cost us zero dollars—no installation or construction fees, and no fee to the solar company. I see no downside to leasing. I pay about the same electric costs as before, and I'll pay the same amount for the 20 years of the lease, so I'll see a big net savings over the long haul."
But the best thing, she says, is that the household is energy net neutral. "We produce as much energy as we consume. Energy goes into the grid during the day, and then we take back from the grid at night."
Olds had SolarCity install his panels just over a year ago. "The experience has been great," he says. "I would have switched to renewable energy anyway, but the leasing arrangement made it easy. SolarCity came out, put the system in and tested it, and then the L.A. Department of Water & Power came out and flipped the switch."
It was Open Neighborhoods building the wireless network that got people into the solar initiative, Olds says. "SolarCity helped fund some of the infrastructure for the wireless network if people signed on to the solar lease program, and now more and more people are going solar—half a dozen houses in the immediate vicinity."
Open Neighborhoods' plan is that residents will be able to generate enough electricity to offset the cost of leasing the panels.
"If you produce more, you save money, which I think most people do," Olds says. "My electric bill is $100 less than it was before, and my lease fee isn't $100. And now the leasing program gives back to the neighborhood by funding the wireless grid. If you can lease it, it's the way to go. It's a win-win."