A Philadelphia-area company is venturing where one local entrepreneur has already failed: offering Pennsylvania consumers the up-to-now unavailable option of going solar through leasing.
The latest effort is by partners experienced in solar leasing. Middle Atlantic Solar Leasing L.P. is the creation of Gemstone Group Inc., a renewable-energy investment-banking firm in Wayne, and AFC First Financial Corp. in Allentown.
Homeowners and small businesses would be able to forgo the significant upfront costs associated with buying a solar-energy system - typically $20,000 to $30,000 for an average home - and instead make monthly payments of about $120 over the 15-year life of the standard lease.
Under the arrangement, consumers would get locked-in electric rates. But because they would not own the systems, they would relinquish the right to sell any future renewable-energy credits that were generated.
The previous leasing endeavor by David Blumenfeld, a lawyer and real estate broker from Lower Merion, failed earlier this year, after eight months. Blumenfeld cited a lack of government subsidies.
Though obstacles remain - including a dearth of private capital, as well as Pennsylvania's still-evolving solar industry and the regulations governing it - Adam Stern, a partner at Gemstone, spoke confidently this week of Middle Atlantic's prospects.
"We wouldn't be launching this without knowing it could work," he said.
Two years ago, Gemstone and AFC collaborated to create a solar residential-leasing program for Connecticut, believed to be the first in the country. They still run it. Solar leasing has since become available in New Jersey, among other states.
Gemstone and AFC launched their Pennsylvania initiative Tuesday - the same day legislation that would increase solar alternative-energy-use requirements for state utilities advanced through the House Environment, Resources, and Energy Committee by a vote of 17-9.
The full House is expected to take up House Bill 2405 early next week. Gov. Rendell considers the measure critical to ensuring a thriving green economy for Pennsylvania.
Opposition has come from the state's traditional energy sources, including coal companies. They fear job losses from the growth of such alternative industries as solar and wind.
The state Chamber of Business and Industry is also fighting House Bill 2405. The advocacy group contends that the impact of Pennsylvania's alternative-energy standards, enacted in 2004, are not fully known, making any increases to them premature.
Several factors make solar-leasing tricky business for Middle Atlantic, including a lack of private capital and uncertainty over the value of solar renewable-energy credits.
SRECs, as they are more commonly known, are the monetary value of kilowatt hours generated from a solar system. Middle Atlantic plans to sell the SRECs from the Pennsylvania systems it installs. But the state's SREC market, like its solar industry, is in its infancy and, consequently, unpredictable.
The current value of an SREC, the equivalent of 1,000 kilowatt hours generated, is about $300. A typical four-kilowatt residential system would yield about four SRECs a year, industry experts said.
Among other things, House Bill 2405 would establish more predictability on SREC values.
Even though the measure's passage is uncertain, Gemstone and AFC officials were certain that Middle Atlantic's debut this week made sense.
While declining to disclose specifics, Stern said capital had been raised to pay for the purchase and installation of enough solar systems to rival the Connecticut program - a $50 million portfolio of 800 homes.
Until other funding can be secured, Middle Atlantic initially will rely on a mix of federal tax credits and state grants available to owners of solar systems, along with capital from the new company's system-installation partners, said John M. Hayes, president of AFC.
Among those partners is Vermont-based groSolar, which on Tuesday had the grand opening of its first sales office in the region, in Broomall.
The firm has worked with Gemstone and AFC in Connecticut, where the leasing program started off slowly. But after consumers became better educated about it, Hayes said, "it went like gangbusters."