By Art Holliday

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - "I've never really been that much of a green person," said Dan Gould. But that changed after the Maryland Heights firefighter researched solar energy for his home in St. Charles.

He purchased solar panels worth $39,000. A month after the panels went online, Gould was glad he went green. He proudly displayed a copy of the $19,000 check he received from Ameren Missouri. At tax time, he received a 30 percent tax incentive from the federal government.

"I found out I could put the system on my house and have somebody else pay for 80 percent of it," said Gould, "and it cuts my electric bill at least in half and maybe closer to 70 percent."

That's an example of how tax credits and utility rebates have made solar panels more attractive to homeowners, businesses, and schools. The latest trend is leasing solar equipment in the St. Louis area, with the federal and state incentives going to the solar companies, like Sunvest Solar.

"That way we can afford to make the cost for the customer that much less, or significantly less, said Jonathan Harnetiaux, a project manager for Sunvest. "The initial cost is greatly reduced. In this case, less than ten percent."

Lower upfront cost is what convinced architect Michael Killeen to lease a large system for his office building in Soulard.

"Everyone would love to have solar, it's such a great idea, but the cost, the depreciation, trying to figure all that stuff out, working your way through the government benefits grants and things, who has time for it? This program they put together makes it easy," said Killeen.

The advantages of a solar lease? You start cutting energy bills from day one. The companies say the lease and your reduced electricity bill will usually add up to a smaller monthly charge than your old energy bill. The panels, installation and maintenance don't generally cost you anything, and their performance is guaranteed.

Leasing typically makes it easier to upgrade panels, which is good since technology is advancing quickly.

There are drawbacks. Depending on the lease, the company may own the solar panels, although some leases allow the consumer to take ownership after a period of time.

And the lease companies get the 30% federal tax credit, along with utility rebates.

Zero-down solar leases can include an escalator clause which could cause your payments to increase over time.

Whether leasing solar panels, or buying them, the payoff comes with lower monthly electric bills.

"While I'm doing nothing," said Dan Gould, "the panels are producing electricity for me, so I don't see how you can go wrong."

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