I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.
- Thomas Edison, Famed Inventor
If you've been considering solar energy for your home, you've most certainly heard of SolarCity.
The company, which is listed on Consumer Affairs as one of the top five solar providers in the nation, gained further stardom and fame when its visionary leader, and owner of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, unveiled his company's new industry-disrupting solar roofing tiles to a packed room (a la' Steve Jobs) in late 2016.
Designed to replace traditional roof tiles with an aesthetically pleasing solar fuel cell that resembles a standard tile, and due out mid-2017, the radical departure from conventional solar panels is a hallmark of this buzz-worthy company.
Innovative products like the solar roof tiles, and world-famous leadership have kept SolarCity on the cutting-edge of technology. The company claims to be building the electric grid of the future through affordable and sustainable solar energy.
And that, it would seem, is just what many Americans want: Products that look cool on their homes, save them money, and help preserve our planet's non-renewable resources.
SolarCity is tapping into many consumers belief that solar has real benefits
Proponents argue solar has real benefits. They specifically point out that compared to conventional energy that comes from coal, oil, or natural gas, solar offers:
- Lower cost electric bills, or even, free energy
- "Clean" energy that won't increase your family's carbon footprint or harm the planet
- Sustainable energy that won't run out as long as the sun continues to burn (don't worry, you've got 5 billion years)
- A reduced reliance on foreign oil
- No need to tap into preserved areas to access natural gas
Opponents to solar are steadily dwindling as the main reason not to go solar continues to decline in relevance: affordability.
We'll be taking a close look at SolarCity considering what's taking place in this constantly moving industry.
Make a more informed choice - hear why people love SolarCity
People who like SolarCity tend to be brand evangelists about the technology, the company, and the people behind it.
"The installation crew was prompt, efficient, and worked in a timely manner. The inspectors from the county and power company had nothing but good things to say about SolarCity and the workmanship," says Cheryl of Congress, Arizona, on ConsumerAffairs.
Danielle of Alpine, California, another ConsumerAffairs reviewer, writes, "SolarCity is by far the most professional business I have worked with from the sales agent to the technicians and electricians…. Family and friends who have signed up with them say the same. I got solar so I could reduce my electric bill, but also so I know I am helping the environment."
But SolarCity isn't without its critics. In general, user reviews site three complaints about SolarCity:
- Aggressive salespeople (especially the door-to-door variety)
- Poor customer service after the sale, usually regarding billing errors
- Installation delays
In reviews at BestCompany, customers claim that they have had trouble trying to get email and phone responses, which can be frustrating for those who need assistance. Some reviewers cite issues with billing or delayed and incorrect installations.
Keep in mind, it's often the few consumers who have issues that become the vocal minority online. Those who feel like William Strange of Irving, Texas, don't always speak out:
"Our first two bills were approximately $300 less than before and our third bill, just received was down about $250 from what we were paying! We think it is fantastic!" Strange wrote at BestCompany.
It's also important to remember that while SolarCity is an international corporation, the installers in each region vary in their ability levels, experience, and customer service. So what's true for a homeowner in Arizona may be very different for a New York resident.
It's helpful to note that SolarCity maintains an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, and has closed more than 100 customer complaints over the past three years.
Undoubtedly, SolarCity appeals on the surface. With a savvy and innovative founder, lots of press attention and a large share of the solar market, the company almost seems to be the "go-to" choice for solar.
But is it really? We uncovered consumers' real experiences with SolarCity, analyzed the company's products, and evaluated payment options.
Overall, based on consumer reviews and extensive research, SolarCity seems to:
- Be one of the most forward-thinking solar providers
- Offer one of the lowest priced options for solar panels with a wide variety of funding options
- Provide excellent incentives for customers
- Make a handy app available to track energy usage and more
- Cover a wide geographic area
This in-depth review will explore and dive into SolarCity
We're going to specifically look at:
- SolarCity's business foundation, philosophies, and history
- SolarCity product offers
- What consumers think about its services and prices
- The company's commitment as a "solar energy leader" to the environment and support local communities with their adoption of solar
- Why many say solar energy represents a crucial part of the "Grid of the Future"
- How SolarCity stacks up against competitors
- And finally, why you should—or shouldn't—consider SolarCity for your solar installation
SolarCity's past, present, and future in your community
In business since 2006, SolarCity currently has more than 100 locations nationwide and provides residential and commercial solar energy technology in 27 states plus Washington D.C. The company even has operations in Mexico.
SolarCity claims a 21 percent market share, making it the largest residential solar installer according to GreenTechMedia.
SolarCity's market share puts the company in a position to take risks with new product development and offer lower prices than competitors. It also gives the company perceived staying power, which offers consumers the confidence to install a product on their roofs that could last as long as 25 years—and know they can receive the service and support they might need over that time.
Reddit users cited the company's longevity, insurance, and warranties as key benefits. "While the other companies will probably exist as well [in 50 years] I have significantly less doubt of SolarCity's longevity," says one Reddit user.
This mindset is likely driven by loyal customers' faith in Elon Musk's skills as a businessman and entrepreneur. Certainly, SolarCity's technology—and Musk's willingness to take the risks that lead to disruptive innovation—play a part, too.
Ties with Tesla
In 2016, eco-friendly electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors purchased SolarCity for $2.6 billion.
Entrepreneur, Elon Musk, whose other endeavors involve private space exploration firm, SpaceX, is chairman of the board for both Tesla and SolarCity.
Musk's first cousin, Lyndon Rive, is the co-founder and CEO of SolarCity, while his brother Peter Rive is co-founder and chief technology officer.
The acquisition of SolarCity by Tesla Motors allows Tesla to "own the energy lifecycle, from generation, with solar installation and storage, to consumption," explains an article at Futurism.
Tesla seconds that notion on its blog, writing: "With these products, our customers will have an entire sustainable energy ecosystem…. This is our vision for the future—one that is sustainable, less expensive, and just better."
More than green products, green production technology
SolarCity products aspire to help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other toxic byproducts released into the air from using fossil fuels (known as the carbon footprint). These toxic gases cause air pollution and global warming.
After just one year of use, the average solar homeowner can reduce their carbon footprint by more than 80 percent, according to SolarCity. (See graphic courtesy of SolarCity.)
Not only do solar panels produce clean solar energy, they are also relatively green to manufacture. "SolarCity's carbon footprint per unit of energy production is 95 percent lower than that of fossil fuel power plants," according to the company website. Translation? They claim to be putting their money where their mouth is.
SolarCity likes to point out its socio-economic impact
In addition to supplying solar energy to millions of homes, the SolarCity mission includes providing clean, affordable energy to lower income and off-grid areas. The company's philanthropic foundation, GivePower, has installed solar systems with battery storage in 1,500 schools in developing countries with no access to an electric grid.
The company also touts the number of jobs it has created.
SolarCity claims to employ more than 13,000 people in the rapidly growing field of solar power. These jobs range from installation and operations representatives to sales reps, software engineers, manufacturing professionals, and more.
People seem to like working there. In 2016, SolarCity was rated by the HR-site, Glassdoor, as one of the Best Places to Work. Comments by employees on the site offer such sparkling praise as: "Good pay, great people, amazing mission."
Additionally, SolarCity's ambassador program gives consumers an opportunity to earn extra cash by referring friends and neighbors. Yes, it could be considered a sales lead generation technique, but SolarCity likes to think of its ambassadors as engaged in high-stakes diplomacy, winning more and more consumers over to clean and renewable energy technology. It doesn't hurt that its ambassadors receive $200 cash for every referral that results in a sale (more about that later).
SolarCity's residential products can save you money and reduce your carbon footprint
In order to delve into a comparison of solar panels, and thus, providers like SolarCity, it's important to first understand the basics of how solar energy works.
"Solar power hasn't really changed much in the past 30 or 40 years," says Frantz Ostmann of Solar Life Consultants, a Florida-based solar advocacy and consulting firm. "The sun beats down on the solar panels, and the panel produces DC (direct current) energy, just like the energy from your car battery. This DC power comes down into an inverter, which changes the DC power to AC power."
AC is what powers your home or feeds into the electric grid for later use. "It's really the same technology found in a car charger for your smartphone, just on a larger scale," Ostmann adds.
Although solar panels still rely on the same technology after 40 years of advances, SolarCity stands as an innovator in the field of solar energy. It claims to make panels that are more efficient, easier to install, and (in the case of solar roofing tiles) better looking than others on the market.
SolarCity reviews from happy consumers call their solar panels sleek, durable, and high-performing. Here's a list of basically everything SolarCity currently offers when it installs solar for your home:
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- Solar PV arrays (solar panels)
- Solar roofing tiles
- Powerwall back-up generator
SolarCity solar panels and "solar PV arrays"
Solar panels are sometimes called "photovoltaics" or "Solar PV" panels, and are tied together in a grid configuration, called a "solar PV array." Most solar panels, including those from SolarCity, share similar characteristics:
- Manufactured from silicon
- Durable and relatively lightweight, so they won't put undue pressure on your roof
- Typically work in nearly any kind of weather to provide clean, affordable energy to your home
But SolarCity's new high-efficiency panels differ in a number of ways:
- They require one-third fewer panels to create the same amount of electricity. "Fewer panels means fewer bits and pieces, less wire, less days on the roof to install," says Francis O'Sullivan, the director of research and analysis at the MIT Energy Initiative.
- A special manufacturing process requires just six steps (rather than 24) to produce the solar cells, reducing overall manufacturing costs and their carbon footprint.
- The solar cells use less expensive copper, rather than silver, as a conductor of the electricity, reducing overall production costs
The decision to go solar or not depends on much more than the solar panels you'll buy
It's generally accepted that solar power will lower your electric bill. But by how much depends on much more than the type of panels you are using.
According to Glenna Wiseman, a solar industry veteran and executive at the solar marketing firm, Identity3, the cost of going solar and the value you'll receive back depend on the following:
- Where you live
- Local incentives that may be available to you
- The size of the solar array
- The amount of the electric bill you want to offset
- How you pay for the system
- The condition of your electrical panel and roof
- Property values
In early 2016, the cost to install solar panels in a U.S. home was about $3 to $4 per watt, according to EnergySage.
So a 5kW-system, which would power a small home (we'll give another example of a larger home in a minute) would cost about $17,500 before any tax credits, rebates, or incentives.
Once the panels are installed, there are very few (if any) maintenance costs, and the power they generate is free for you to use.
SolarCity cost per watt (how efficient the panels are) comes in at less than the national average
- SolarCity: $3.18 per watt
- Vivint Solar: $3.34 per watt
- SunRun: $4.11 per watt
With the opening of a new factory in Buffalo, New York, and the introduction of advanced technologies, SolarCity further reduced that price to $2.84 in late 2016.
SolarCity projected that its production costs could drop below $2.50 per watt by the end of 2017 once the Buffalo plant is operating at full capacity.
See the trend here? The cost to install solar tech, according to SolarCity, is going down.
Here's an example of how much solar would cost for a family of four
Let's look at an average family of four in New York, one of the states with the highest costs for conventional electricity. Let's call this family, The Joneses.
The Joneses are paying 0.178 cents per kilowatt hour and using 1100 kWh of electricity each month. Their electric bill comes out to $195 per month.(For the sake of discussion we will ignore any taxes, fees, and delivery charges from their provider, because even a solar home gets billed for those.)
Anyone considering solar should note that there is a way to have a big fat goose egg, or even a negative number on your bill, in addition to getting FREE power.
It's called "net metering." It's when your solar PV array generates more electricity than you use, so you sell that energy back to the electric company to offset the other charges on your bill.
Net metering is what most solar families strive for, and they often find themselves taking measures to reduce energy consumption to bring them closer to net zero. By reducing the amount of energy you use to match what your solar PV array produces, you'll come closer to generating all the electricity you need. You'll be net-zero! ]
The Joneses —because they are family of four—are buying a 10kW-system for $28,400 (couples or smaller families could consider a 5kW-system).
After deducting the 30 percent solar tax credit: $19,880, this family bought the panels outright, so they are saving money immediately, since they do not have any monthly bills for a solar lease or loan.
This is important to note. If you lease or finance your panels, you'll have monthly payments to keep in mind even if you "go solar." Why's that? Much of the money you saved "going solar" shifts from going to the local electric company and instead, can be used to pay off your solar loan.
Because the Joneses purchased their panels outright, the Joneses also get to enjoy the solar tax credit, mentioned earlier. Known as the Investment Tax Credit, this credit allows families to deduct 30 percent of the cost of installing a solar energy system from federal taxes, with no cap. It's what has helped fuel a rapid increase in solar growth in America.
In 2016, the Obama administration extended the credit for five years. President Trump could, theoretically, repeal the tax credit, but finance experts say it's "unlikely to be changed retroactively." Trump has given no indication the ITC is on the chopping block, but, in this administration anything can happen. If you're considering solar, it might be wise to get started now.
Let's get back to the Jones family, who did receive that hefty federal tax deduction. Their system creates 830kW per month, or approximately three-quarters of their electricity, slashing their electric bill from $195 to $49 a month.
A quick check on the ol' calculator proves the Joneses will pay off their solar energy installation in... ($19,880)/($195 - $49) = 136 months, or about 12 years.
This equation presumes that the energy needs of the Jones stays the same AND that they don't start to get more energy from their panels (they could cut down a tree that is shading the panels, ironically, improving their carbon footprint).
So, are the Joneses happy?
Of course! In 12 years they will be getting free power and they can honestly say that they have taken a direct step during that time (and after) to help mitigate their environmental impact.
It's very important to note, however, that "your results may vary" in either earnings or cost direction. Not every family is the Joneses.
Here's what other real families had to say their energy savings with SolarCity
Richard of Lincoln, California, told Consumer Affairs: "I had a great experience with SolarCity and the system is performing as stated. I saved $50 the first month." (Not quite the $140 savings of our hypothetical solar family, but he was happy.)
Gary of San Clemente, California had an even better experience after installing a SolarCity system, "My monthly electric bill from our local utility supplier (SDG&E) has been less than $10/month (minimum to be connected to the electrical grid) for the first two months—a pleasing change from approximately $300/month!"
The monthly savings for going solar change, if you use a loan to finance "going solar".
Let's take the case of the Jones again and assume they have excellent credit but don't have an extra $20,000 cash lying around to outright buy the solar system.
They take out a no-money-down, 0% interest, 20-year SolarLoan, which is another helpful service by SolarCity that we'll get into later - loans.
Now, with the 20-year loan, the Joneses will pay $82.83 per month for their solar panels, plus $49 for the electricity they still need to buy (remember, they still use more than they make).
The total monthly cost comes to approximately $112. This gives them $83 in savings compared to their original electric bill of $195.
However, if they were to take out a 10-year loan at $165 per month, because of the cost of the loan plus their paid-energy usage, they would actually pay more for their energy needs after their solar installation. Yes, they would own their solar system after 10 years, but the Joneses, in this instance, would have to pay more today than what their paying to their electric company. If they have the cash flow to afford this, then ok. But...
In this situation, since the loan comes with a 0% interest rate, a 20-year loan with smaller monthly payments would put more cash in the customer's pocket and allow them to "go solar."
Consumers must think through the overall and monthly cost of the loan, as well as their energy needs.
They must also make sure they are getting the 0% interest promised in the ads. Read the contract; don't just take the solar salespeople at their word, whether they are with SolarCity or a competitor. When homeowners fail to do this, it's easy to see why some homeowners say their energy bills went up after their solar lease or loan.
Carol Lee of Wilmington, Delaware, faced this situation. "I am paying SolarCity $150.29 per month, and my electric company $106. No one said anything about paying for overages! I am a widow who doesn't make a lot of money. I thought I was going to be saving and I am paying more."
The solution to lower monthly payments for energy? Buy outright with 0% interest
Buy outright, if you can, to enjoy immediate savings and to hedge your bets against rising electric costs. The more electricity costs, the more you save by creating your own.
Also, ensure your installer provides a system that will supply all your electricity needs. Problems arise when there is a gap between what a family needs and what a family produces through their solar PV array. Then you're paying your solar loan and purchasing electricity (like Carol Lee mentioned above), which increases your costs.
Additionally, take measures to improve the energy efficiency of your home and reduce your family's energy usage before going solar. Everything you do to decrease consumption brings you closer to "net zero" and savings on your electric bills.
The importance of efficiency
As panels decrease in costs and gain even greater efficiency, scenarios where consumers don't save with solar will become few and far between. Today, SolarCity and competitor, SunPower, both make state-of-the-art high-efficiency solar panels. While SunPower's X-Series panels come in at 21.5 percent efficiency, SolarCity's new panels have an efficiency greater than 22 percent, and cost less to produce as well.
The efficiency of solar panels matters to consumers. More efficient panels require fewer panels to produce the same amount of electricity, reducing product and installation costs. In essence, it takes fewer panels to do the job, so you can either install more on your roof and make more electricity, or get away with fewer and reduce the overall costs of your solar installation. Either way, that means money in your pocket—and a better chance of profiting with solar power!
In mid-2017, SolarCity says you'll have a solar roof that increases your home value, generates clean energy, AND looks great
One argument homeowners have had in the past about conventional solar panels is they simply aren't attractive. And although this is changing as people begin to recognize the true beauty of solar—energy independence—SolarCity is the first to market with a real solution.
"It's not a thing on the roof. It is the roof," SolarCity's Elon Musk said in VentureBeat, describing the company's new solar roofing tiles.
- The solar cells are integrated into the tile, so are invisible to the naked eye
- Manufactured from a high-efficiency solar cell, a layer of tempered glass for durability, colored luvoure film to mimic the look of traditional tiles
- Roofing tiles come in four designs to match any architectural style
- Options are: Tuscan glass, Smooth glass, Textured glass, and Slate glass
In this video, Musk demonstrates the durability of the tiles by dropping a heavy weight on them and on regular roofing shingles. The solar tiles remained unscathed, while the shingles were destroyed.
Because the shingles are so new, no consumer reviews exist yet. If you are considering installing solar, then it may be smart to wait until these revolutionary shingles have been released and tested by the market.
PowerWall technology offers what gas generators don't
SolarCity's PowerWall 2 is not a solar PV array, and it cannot power your entire home with solar energy on a regular basis. It is a lithium-ion battery back-up system for your solar roof, and can serve as a whole home back-up generator in the event the electric grid goes down.
Translation? It's a big battery, capable of powering your home in the event of a power loss or when you're using more real-time energy than what your panels can generate.
For years, battery technology for solar PV arrays was both cost-prohibitive and dangerous. So instead, people relied on a network of power lines and towers to power their home with energy. This network is often referred to as the "the grid."
Solar experts like Ostmann say, "In essence, the grid is your battery storage source," referring to a solar homeowner's ability to feed electricity into the current electricity grid when they have a surplus, and draw from it when they need more than their panels can provide.
America's grid gives consumers electrical power primarily using conventional energy sources i.e., fossil fuels (in some cases, there's power generated by hydro, or dams).
Not every consumer or family wants to be reliant on the grid.
Some can't due to geographic concerns.
And others seek the ultimate freedom—generating their own electricity with no reliance on conventional energy providers.
SolarCity's PowerWall2 makes their preferences possible, storing energy generated by solar when there's a surplus and acting as a generator to power a home when there's no sunlight.
This is a super important product by SolarCity and one to which you should pay close attention. While some companies, including LG and German manufacturer "sonnenBatterie" offer battery backup, none provide it with the advanced technology or low price point of SolarCity's PowerWall 2.
SolarCity's PowerWall 2 mounts on the exterior of your home and stores enough energy to power the lights, electrical outlets, and refrigerator of a four-bedroom house for a full day.
Not convinced? Here's more about the PowerWall 2 by SolarCity:
- It retails for $5,500, which is comparable to the price of many whole-home gas generators.
- Most homeowners use the PowerWall2 as a backup generator should the grid fail, due to weather or a natural disaster.
- Unlike a whole-home gas generator, the PowerWall is silent and doesn't release dangerous carbon monoxide gas like conventional generators.
- With 14.0 kilowatt-hours of energy, its capacity is double that of its predecessor, the original PowerWall.
- Perhaps best of all, you don't have to leave your home to refuel—just wait for the sun to come out again, and the PowerWall 2 charges with your excess solar energy.
Mark Baker, author of "Tomorrow Is Another Country," shares on Quora a few reasons PowerWall 2 could be worth the investment for homeowners:
- You have a substantial source of solar power that needs storing.
- Your local night electricity rate is substantially lower than your day rate and you are consuming much of your electricity during the day.
- You have an electric car that needs charging during the day rather than at night.
Mechanical engineering graduate Arnis Tarussu, adds to this analysis: "The best circumstances to have PowerWall2 is when you have/will have solar/wind energy production and your grid provider takes a profit out of your energy you gave back," he writes on Quora. "Don't give it back, keep it for yourself for nighttime use."
Invest in solar: Payment options for every budget
Solar homeowners have many choices when it comes to paying for their solar investment. "Payment options right now are amazing," solar consultant Frantz Ostmann says.
He points out that paying cash or financing your solar panels is the best way to get a fast return on your investment, but there are Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) and lease options for those who can't pay cash or get affordable financing.
Cash and loans are self-explanatory. "The systems can be financed like any other home improvement, but the end result is you own the system," says Wiseman. "As the cost of solar has dropped dramatically in the last few years, solar power system purchases have become more popular."
But how do you lease panels?
SolarCity offers a solar leasing option with as little as $0 down. Just like a car lease, you can increase your down payment to lower your monthly payments. Or you can even pay the price of the lease upfront. SolarCity's SolarLease provides:
- System monitoring to ensure the system is running efficiently
- Free repair service
- Insurance coverage against damage or theft
- Options to upgrade the panels, remove the panels, or extend the lease at the end of the agreement. The only complication is if you plan to sell your home, says Wiseman. In theory, your lease can be transferred to new homeowners, but it can be tricky. "I am familiar with incidents where a leased solar power system caused difficulties in a home purchase," Wiseman adds.
Just as leasing a car costs less than buying it with an auto loan, a solar lease by SolarCity could actually save the Jones family more money (see Chapter 2 for more about the Joneses). In addition, they will enjoy worry-free—and cost-free—maintenance and repair on their panels.
The monthly price for a solar lease is set by SolarCity, and does not require you to pay for the full cost of the panels over those 20 years. When setting lease prices, SolarCity takes into account the cost of electricity, That's why it works out less than a 20-year loan—and potentially a lot less than a 10-year loan, which would have larger monthly payments.
Most financial experts agree it's better to buy than to lease (just as with cars!) if you can afford it. It pays to ask your SolarCity salesperson to run the numbers and show you which option would provide greater savings.
If you can't afford the monthly payments on a 20-year solar loan, a lease could make the difference, permitting you to reduce your family's carbon footprint, make a difference in the environment, and slash your electric bill with clean solar power.
Also, in much the same way people who like to enjoy a brand new car every two to three years opt to lease instead of buy, if you think you would like to upgrade your solar panels to a more energy-efficient or better-looking and newer model in the near future, then a lease is for you.
Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) is another way to finance your solar system
Another option exists for SolarCity customers to pay for their solar system: A "Power Purchase Agreement" (PPA). With a PPA, you pay for your panels by kWh (the same way you pay for conventional electricity except you're paying your solar provider). With a SolarPPA through SolarCity:
- You are not responsible for any repairs or maintenance on your panels
- You don't receive any tax credits for your solar, since you don't own it
- You can negotiate to purchase the system outright after five years (just like a car lease), and then your solar energy is truly free.
But be careful that the price you're paying for solar energy is less than the price your electricity provider currently charges.
Charles of Middletown, Delaware, warns: "I have the power purchase agreement that charges me 11 cents per kilowatt hour. My system was quoted as providing about 80% of my electricity needs. My electric company charges 9.8 cents per kilowatt hour, so I am now paying more for electricity than ever before. I take full blame for being swindled by my salesperson who all but guaranteed me that I would save some money. I would have been happy saving $10-$20 a month. I am writing this so other potential customers know that solar is not always cheaper."
Sounds rough. But each user's experience with solar is unique because each state and geographic location creates a different cost and solar value.
The Joneses were paying a whopping 17.8 cents per kilowatt hour. In their case, the Jones family would see a substantial savings of about 35 percent with a PPA of 11 cents. You'll need to carefully assess your current electricity costs before you buy any solar system.
SolarCity's app and tracking technology
However you pay for your system, you'll have the ability to track your electrical use and solar panel efficiency through the SolarCity Powerguide control panel and the MySolarCity app. This can help you be a more energy-conscious and conscientious homeowner, further reducing your electric bills and improving the return on your solar investment.
Enthusiastic reviewer Andrew Pratt writes, "I use the MySolarCity APP everyday as a SolarCity Energy Consultant and I absolutely love the features and functionality. No other company has an app that allows you to monitor personal usage vs. consumption… Not only is the app free, you can earn money by referring homeowners to go solar and track the progress with the app! Overall I give it 5 stars!"
The MySolarCity app provides a number of functions:
- From the Powerguide screen, track how much electricity you're generating and using
- See how your electricity usage stacks up against other homeowners on the EnergyExplorer screen
- Connect with other solar homeowners in the online community
- Track your SolarCity referrals
- Find resources to share the good news about solar power
- View all SolarCity users near you, including commercial and government applications
The EnergyExplorer screen provides a bar graph of your energy use, as it's divided by appliances and utilities. The app is interactive, with videos and an online community where you can share tips and ideas with other solar-conscious consumers.
As of February 2017, the app received a 3.6-star rating in the Google Play store, with 186 Android users giving the app 5 stars. Seventy-nine users gave it one star.
Some common complaints? The pop-up ads, sign-in issues, and inaccurate information reported in Powerguide. According to one reviewer, Paul Archer, "This app is easily bored, and so spends its time flashing little popups that say 'your connection has been lost' and 'your connection has been restored.' Mind you, this happens whether you are using the app or not. Watch a video on YouTube, check your mail, it doesn't matter. This app will keep reminding you of your connection status."
However, user Melissa Pelletier summed up what many say are its best features: "[It's a] great way to track production! You can see your home system working anywhere in the world where you have internet service."
Additionally, users like the ability to track their SolarCity referrals, which earn them $200 for each person who makes a purchase based on their recommendation. Emily K writes: "The Ambassador tools are super useful for convincing more people to go solar. I like showing the videos, helps people understand what SolarCity is all about and what to expect with the program!"
Solar panels by SolarCity: Installation is the easy part
Once you make the commitment to go solar, there's good news. The actual installation of your SolarCity system is fairly easy and can take as little as one day, depending on the size of your roof.
Linda of Petaluma, California, left a favorable review at Consumer Affairs regarding the ease of installation. "The installers were fast, efficient and very good about not causing any damage to my house or landscaping."
Customers who did experience delays stated the delays were caused by financing or permit issuing, and not the physical installation of the panels.
One Reddit user noted that these struggles are common with most solar companies, writing, "The utility drags everything out as long as possible. They drag out the pre-approval and the final approval… My local permit office was so swamped with solar permits that it took them two months to approve a permit that their own paperwork said 30 days."
Craig of Oro Valley, California, agreed in his Consumer Affairs review: "I have appreciated the service that I get from SolarCity. They have done exactly what they said they would do. I am saving money, and helping the environment. This is a great product. I wish the electric company didn't make it so hard to complete the process."
Most consumers who had complaints focused more on the time it took prior to installation to gain financing, or even billing issues after the installation, like Reddit user AlfLives in Denver. "SolarCity's finance system is a mess," he wrote. "The bills always show up a week or so after they're due. However, they seem to know this as they don't ever charge anyone late fees. I called their finance department about this and it was clear I wasn't the first person with the same concerns."
Your yard will need to be maintained, not your SolarCity panels
It's not your system that needs to be maintained, but your yard.
Well-placed solar panels from most companies should require no maintenance. However, if your property has trees that could grow over time and place the panels in the shadows, they will need to stay trimmed.
In the winter, the dark glass of the solar panels actually helps snow to melt faster. As it melts it should slide right off, and panels will then operate at their usual efficiency once again.
Comparison-shop solar providers to find the best fit
You have choices in solar providers and installers. SolarCity's primary competitors include:
Vivint: An offshoot of the well-known security company, Vivint boasts several differentiating factors, including:
- Micro-inverters for more efficient panels
- Integration with Vivint security and home automation systems
- Monitoring of all three systems through one mobile app
One downside is that Vivint only offers PPAs, (see chapter 4 about paying for your solar system) which is in line with the security industry model of paying for service.
NRG: A leading solar provider in the eastern U.S., NRG did not start as a solar installer, but as an integrated energy provider.
- Only serves three states
- Requires a credit score of 700 to qualify for a solar lease, making it a viable choice for only a small percentage of consumers.
Sungevity: A privately held solar-energy services company headquartered in Oakland, California, Sungevity, Inc. ranks behind SolarCity, Vivint Solar, and NRG.
- Partnered with home improvement retailer Lowe's
- Moving toward solar sales and service, rather than just manufacturing
SunPower: SunPower is often mentioned in the same breath as SolarCity, and with good reason.
- One of the original solar energy providers in the U.S.
- X-Series panels compete with SolarCity's new high-efficiency panels
- No PPA option, a major drawback for many customers
Dividend Solar: With a 4.5-star rating at Consumer Affairs, Dividend Solar ranks above larger industry leaders like SolarCity and Vivint. What sets Dividend apart?
Unlike the others, Dividend does not manufacture its own panels, but works to connect potential solar customers with qualified installers in their area. You also gain the benefit of working direct with the lender, rather than a third-party lender, which SolarCity uses, for financing.
Since reviewers state that it often takes a long time to get financing, eliminating the middleman can make "going solar" go faster. The way Dividend streamlines the entire process with a paperless loan application appeals to many homeowners. The company is touted as providing exemplary customer service.
If you choose Dividend, however, your work isn't done. You still need to decide on a panel manufacturer—which would most likely be done with counsel from your installer, who may not have an unbiased opinion. The installer is likely to try to convince you the panels they sell are the best (of course).
If you'd rather do that important research on your own, Dividend is not the company for you. Likewise, if you want to take advantage of the new solar roof panels from SolarCity or a PowerWall2 battery, Dividend's choice of installer may not offer SolarCity products.
With fewer financing options and availability in slightly fewer states, Dividend is still a good bet for solar—if their model and products work for you.
Sean of Oakdale, CA, points out in a Consumer Affairs review:
There were many negative reviews as well as positive ones of going solar but we decided to pick Dividend Solar because of the reviews that they had. The overall time it took the process and the end product, everything's been a positive response. We're relieved that we made a good choice. Dividend Solar's customer service answered all our questions. Enrollment was an easy process, too. They took our information, ran the numbers, and got the system we wanted to work. We got the loan for it to be completed. Everything worked out fine.
- Provides $0 down Solar EmpowerLoans to creditworthy consumers
- Does not offer leases or other financing options
- Currently available in 23 states
- Customers who had issues with Dividend cited delays with getting hooked up to the grid or specific problems with local installers.
While the other solar energy companies may offer one or two payment options, SolarCity is the only one (besides NRG) with excellent terms for solar leasing, PPAs, or loans in 28 U.S. states plus Washington, D.C. and Mexico.
What puts SolarCity near the top of the list for solar choices? Simply put, in spite of any negative reviews, many customers feel asDebra of Fort Washington, MD, does:
Overall my experience with SolarCity has been very positive. When I had questions or concerns they were addressed in a timely manner. Haven't received my first bill yet but I check my SolarCity account everyday and can see what my system is producing as well as how much I'm saving. I recommend SolarCity to everyone that is thinking about going solar.
With a well-known name in solar and the "star power" of Elon Musk behind the company, along with hundreds of thousands of successful installations across the country, SolarCity could be the "bright" choice for many homeowners.
Three popular FAQ questions to make you a smarter solar consumer
Users on popular internet forums like Reddit and Quora did have a few questions about SolarCity. We took the time to find and answer the most prevalent.
How long does it take to install solar panels?
Most solar installers say the installation process takes about one to three days, and SolarCity is no different in this regard. However, the permit process can take up to a month. According to consumer reviews at Highya, it can take another month for SolarCity to turn on your service. J.D., a verified reviewer at the Better Business Bureau, waited even longer.
He wrote: "I am VERY unhappy with their program. I was installed the first week of May and we were told that we should be hooked up and live in about 6 week. I have called multiple times to find out when that is going to happen and keep getting a run-around."
What if I want to cancel?
According to the sample contract published by SolarCity, you can cancel at any time prior to construction. Once the panels are installed, it's much harder to get out of a contract.
I just purchased a house with solar. How can I get out of the solar lease?
Getting out of a solar lease with any company is challenging. You can:
- Buy the lease outright
- Negotiate with the seller to pay for the lease (or deduct that cost from the mortgage)
- Have the lease transferred to your name
If you opt to have the panels removed, there may be damage to the roof, as Reddit user "sfreal" learned after removing leased SolarCity panels left by the previous homeowner: "A roof inspector recommended replacing the roof because although the anchor points were patched, there were still several of them which could mean a leaking roof since there were so many patched holes (over 20)."
Likewise, if the home uses SolarCity's new integrated roof tiles, the house will, of course, need a new roof.
To help avoid such issues:
- Make sure you have copies of every paper you've signed.
- Record phone calls with representatives, if necessary.
- If you don't receive a bill after the installation, call to find out how much you owe.
Ready to go solar?
Going solar is easy and affordable. Now that you've read up on your solar options, you can choose a solar installer and the types of panels that will meet your needs now and into the future.
Educating yourself so you can ask knowledgeable questions and keeping paperwork in order will ensure you have a smoother installation and customer service experience, no matter which provider you choose.
Because of its several payment options, a rich and innovative company history, and attractive roofing solutions, SolarCity is likely a top contender for your business.
If you're sold on SolarCity, be sure to check your credit score so you'll have an idea if you'll qualify for a low-interest solar lease or loan, or if a PPA might be the better financing choice for you.
Because of SolarCity's referral program, before you book, check and see if you have any friends with SolarCity panels. You can put an extra $200 in their pocket by asking them to introduce you to their installer. We hope you'll be rewarded. If you'd rather go direct, then you can speak to a SolarCity salesperson by reaching out through their website or calling +1 (888) 765-2489.
Finding the right words is hard. Getting the full scoop on all major solar energy providers is easy at Quote.com