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Free solar panels: Are they really free in 2023?

If you’ve been shopping around for a solar panel system, you’ve probably heard at least one company advertise ‘free solar panels,’ implying that they’ll install a solar energy system on your roof for free. But, much as with anything, remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch – and there’s no such thing as free solar panels.

Key takeaways

  1. ‘Free solar panels’ aren’t really free: typically this refers to solar leases or PPAs.

  2. You’ll save more money overall by choosing a $0-down solar loan over a solar lease or PPA because you’ll be the one to receive any federal, state, or local incentives.

  3. If you’re able to purchase your system outright, you’ll see the highest return on investment overall.

  4. While you can’t get free solar panels, you can get free solar quotes – visit the EnergySage Marketplace to compare custom quotes from local installers.

What’s in this article?

What do companies mean when they say free solar panels?

Decoding the sales pitch: the terms ‘free solar panels’ or ‘no cost solar program’ are sometimes used to advertise solar lease or solar power purchase agreements (PPAs). Under these solar financing arrangements, a solar company will put a solar system on your roof at no up-front cost to you for installation, enrollment, or maintenance. This sounds great – you get to say that your home is powered by clean energy, and can even point to the solar panels on your roof to prove it.

But the reality is that you do not technically own the system, and the solar energy the panels produce is not part of a ‘no cost’ solar program. Under solar lease agreements, ownership is retained by the solar company, and you pay for the electricity it produces. In essence, the company has built a small power plant on your roof and is selling you the electricity.

Most offers will save you money on energy bills but not all of them, so make sure you’ve thoroughly compared all your options (and consider buying your solar panels or financing them with a zero-down solar loan).

Can you get free solar panels from the government?

Simply put, you cannot get free solar panels from the government. These payment plans are actually solar leases or PPAs, and they’re a no-cost upfront option that gives ownership to the solar company or installer. You pay for the electricity the system produces, and you miss out on many of the financial benefits and incentives of renewable energy. That’s not to say that PPAs or solar leases are bad – you can still save money in the long run! If you’re interested in learning about ways that the federal and local government can offset the cost of installing solar panels, we recommend learning more about the Renewable Energy Tax Credit and exploring your eligibility for state and local programs.

Solar leases: how to go solar with a lower upfront cost

If you’re looking for free solar panels, or at least solar panels with less cost upfront, solar leases could be a good option for you. You may have various reasons for going solar. If you’re like most people, saving money, eliminating your utility bills and/or reducing your carbon footprint are probably at the top of the list. The environmental benefits of going solar are more or less the same regardless of who installs your system, so it’s key to focus on the financial benefits.

Regardless of its ‘do-good’ image, the solar industry is an industry like any other: the companies offering products are looking to turn a profit. Providers of solar leases make their money by selling you electricity, usually at a lower rate than what you pay your utility.

Although companies like SolarCity once dominated the market for solar leases, countless new players have since entered the space and begun competing with each other, while SolarCity is no longer around. Some solar leases will save you more money on your electric bills than others. You as a solar shopper can now pick your company based on their offer. So even if financial gain is secondary to environmental considerations for you, you should still shop around to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

Looking for free solar panels? Try financing your system with a solar loan instead

The revolutionary thing about solar leases was that they made it possible for virtually anyone with a roof to go solar, regardless of whether they had cash in the bank to purchase a system. Solar leases were crucial in removing barriers to entry back when solar system prices were prohibitively high.

But times have changed substantially since solar leases were introduced. Solar systems are now more affordable than ever, now that financing options other than solar leases have become viable. The most important of these is the solar loan, which combines the ‘zero-down’ aspect of the solar lease with the benefits of system ownership (‘the best of both worlds‘).

So, before you sign up for the first ‘free solar panel’ or ‘no cost solar program’ deal that comes your way, make sure you understand what you’re being offered and that you’ve considered all of your other options. In other words, be a smart solar shopper.

Comparing solar purchase options: cash purchases vs. loans and leases

Now that you understand the nuances between solar leases, power purchase agreements, and solar loans, it’s important to assess the return on investment in each scenario. Here’s a breakdown of the most potential to least potential return depending on the payment plan you choose (cash purchase, personal loan, or solar leases and PPAs): Financing optionUpfront costSavingsEligibility for rebates & incentives Cash purchaseHighHighestYes Personal loanZero or lowHighYes Solar lease/PPAZeroLowNo

1. Cash purchase

Buying your rooftop solar panel system outright is usually the best value over 25 years. Even though your initial cost could be steep, you can reap all of the financial benefits and savings associated with going solar (incentives, tax credits, and more).

2. Personal loan

Applying for a solar loan is the next best option when it comes to a return on investment. The initial cost is $0; however, interest payments chip away at energy savings for approximately the first seven years until the loan is paid off. The payback period will ultimately depend on factors like the upfront cost, size, energy efficiency, and interest rates associated with your solar photovoltaic system. After that time period, you get to keep 100% of your energy savings.

3. Solar leases and PPAs

Choosing to go with a solar lease or solar PPA may be something worth considering for certain homeowners. The biggest selling point here is that there is no upfront cost, but beware that the value is dampened by the solar company which takes out their cut of your savings through your monthly payments. By the end of your warranty period, the lease or PPA will have taken up more than half of your potential savings as profits for the solar installer.

Take a deeper dive into the different solar financing options.

Lower your upfront cost with federal and local solar incentives

The main takeaway when considering a ‘no cost’ solar program or PPA is that you don’t own the solar panel system on your roof—the installer does. Most agreements are structured in a way that heavily benefits the installer, and it allows them to claim the Federal Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), as well as any local incentives, for going solar.

Solar income tax credit and other government incentives

If you’ve been on the fence about switching to solar energy, there may be a financial incentive offered by the government that seals the deal for you. Right now, the best solar incentive is the Federal Tax Credit, or ITC, which is available to all U.S. homeowners. As of 2023, this federal incentive allows you to claim the credit when you buy a solar energy system – you can currently credit up to 30 percent of your spending on the purchase and related installation costs. This tax credit value is applicable if the system is placed and in service before December 31, 2032.

However, if you choose a ‘no cost’ solar program or PPA, your installer will get this credit instead of you. For example, if the system on your roof costs $10,000, the ITC would award $3,000 to the system owner – however, because the installer would technically own the system, they’d receive that money. Essentially, you’d be missing out on one of the key financial benefits of investing in renewable energy.

Performance-based incentives

Two other programs worth mentioning include Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) and performance-based incentives. First, some states that have ambitious renewable energy goals are striving to meet quotas related to solar production which has led to SRECs. Eligible houses with solar systems that can produce more than one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity can claim SRECs. Additionally, performance-based incentives are rewards given for producing a certain amount of solar energy. For example, if you’re eligible for performance-based incentives, your utility would pay you for producing a set quantity of electricity from your solar system, whether you choose to use it or you send it back to the grid.

State & local incentives

The other perk here is that you can apply the 30 percent discount costs of your solar system after also taking any state-level rebates or incentives, meaning you can benefit from both federal and state incentives to help offset the costs of going solar. On a state level, most have an incentive program in the form of a tax credit, but it varies state-to-state. Depending on where you live, you may also be able to take advantage of state net metering programs in which you’re compensated by your utility company for excess kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity you send back to the grid. Many local cities and counties also offer direct rebates to help with the costs of solar panel installations.

Frequently asked questions about free solar panels

Whether you’re considering opting into a no-cost solar program, or you’re second-guessing the sales pitch, check out a few frequently asked questions people have regarding this trend in renewable energy:

Who is eligible for free solar panels? 

Because ‘free solar panels’ is a misleading statement, it’s important to say this – no one is eligible for ‘free solar panels.’ In recent years, some people have been taken advantage of due to these claims, especially those in low-income communities. However, solar leases have made it much easier for anyone with a roof to go solar, regardless of whether or not they can afford the upfront cost of installation.

Are no cost solar programs really no cost?

No, there is no such thing as a no-cost solar program. These programs are actually solar leases or power purchase agreements (PPAs) in which a company will install solar panels on your roof for no money up-front, but they will charge you for the electricity produced. 

What’s the catch with free solar panels?

There’s really no such thing as truly free solar panels – companies offering them aren’t necessarily trying to scam you, but they’re also not being 100% honest. While verified installers may offer the panels themselves for no cost, you as the buyer will still need to pay for installation. Solar United Neighbors offers a checklist on how to spot solar scams – if you think you have been the victim of a solar scam, you can report it to the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker.

How can I get solar panels for zero money down?

While you cannot get panels for free, there are payment plans which are actually solar leases or power purchase agreements (PPAs), and they’re a no-cost upfront option that gives ownership to the solar company or installer.

Compare solar quotes on the EnergySage Marketplace

Solar panels may not be free, but you can get free, custom quotes from pre-vetted solar installers when you sign up on the EnergySage Marketplace. Comparing quotes allows you to see more options and ultimately get a great deal on your solar panel system. To get a quick estimate of how much you’ll save with solar – whether you choose to pay upfront, use a $0-down loan, or go with a solar lease/PPA – check out our solar calculator.

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