Can't Afford Solar Panels? Lease Them

Solar panels on the roof of one of Rockefeller Center's buildings are unveiled on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007 in New York. The panels will help to power the lights on the center's Christmas tree this holiday season. Poor nations have demanded easier access to expensive green technology, such as solar and wind-power hardware, to help meet emissions goals.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Sunlight is free. But installing solar panels to heat your home is beyond the means of many Americans.

If you live in California, Oregon or Arizona though - and other states starting next year - a bright idea can save you a bundle, as CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker explains.

With rooftop solar systems costing $25,000-$50,000, even ardent environmentalists run for cover. And Kathy Nalty is not the greenest person on the planet.

She says she drives a gas-guzzler and doesn't buy much organic food.

But look on her roof. She's gone solar. In her typical suburban house, which she shares with kids and grandma, five TVs and four computers, her electric bill went from $200-$300 a month to just $59 a month.

That's thanks to a hot idea sweeping the solar industry: leasing. Nalty gets solar panels free. The solar company charges her $100 a month for the 15-year lease, and state and federal rebates for new solar systems - worth a couple of thousand dollars - go to the company.

"My usage is down," Nalty says, and she saves so much on electric bills that she actually comes out ahead about $100 each month.

"I kept thinking it was too good to be true," she said.

"Our biggest problem with customers was they didn't want to pay the upfront cost of solar," said Jim Cahill of SolarCity.

SolarCity, one of the first companies to start leasing to residential customers, says it's a win for the company, the environment, the consumer.

"It's allowed people who didn't have the option of getting the system, to get a system," Cahill said.

"Some of the deals out there right now allow you to essentially go solar right away and do so with a lower average utility bill than you had before, even though solar energy is still more expensive than conventional power," said Daniel Kammen, a professor at U.C. Berkeley.

With leasing, incentives for businesses, and rebates for homeowners who buy systems, solar panel use doubled in California last year - a big step toward the ambitious goal of generating one-third of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2020 and proof of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's assertion that "you can be good to both the economy and the environment."

So Kathy Nalty isn't the greenest person on the planet - but leasing has made her greener.

And, "I feel a little less guilty," she said.