We haven't said much here yet about solar energy, but even in advance of such a discussion it seems worthwhile to mention a recent development on that front.

Several companies have started leasing solar panels for residential use.  This gets around one of the principal drawbacks to this kind of energy generation, the upfront cost.

A roof-top system capable of providing a reasonable level of electricity to an average house can cost $20,000 or $30,000 or more.  There are tax credits available from the federal government (10 percent of the cost up to $3,000) and some states offer additional inducements, but that initial outlay is still a killer.

Now, where leases are available, homeowners can amortize the cost of the solar equipment over a long term, 15 to 25 years, using their energy savings to carry the cost of the leases.

Four companies are leading the way in this endeavor; freEner-g which is at present serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul area; CT Solar Lease leasing in parts of Connecticut; SolarCity which is currently operating in Arizona, Oregon, and California; and CitizenrÄ• which has a presence in 42 states.  SolarCity has been getting most of the press recently features on CNN and CBS but their expansion plans financed by Morgan Stanley have been put on hold in the current economy.

The kinds of plans offered varies by companies but most involve a combination of upfront payments which are not small, $1,000 to $3,000 is typical, then the homeowner essentially buys his energy on a monthly basis from the leasing company.  A solar power user must still remain on the grid for standby electricity.

Another model that is supposedly available is a straight rental with no up-front payment.  Monthly energy bills would be larger than with a downpayment which is essentially "buying down" the rate.  None of the websites we visited publicized the availability of this option but it is out there.

The numbers on this are all over the map and savings and payback periods will vary depending on the amount of the downpayment, the size of the household, and electric rates in a locality.

Leasing the panels has benefits beyond the lower upfront cost.  Most of the leasing companies service their equipment, usually at no additional charge.  Some companies allow users to lock in their rates, thus protecting them against future rate increases, and it is usually possible to move the panels to a new home during the length of the lease.

If you are interested in this alternative and it is available in your area, do a little research before you commit.  Here are some questions to ask.

Is the rate per kilowatt hour you will be paying sufficiently less than is charged by your electric company to amortize your downpayment in a reasonable period of time?

Do local rules allow the public utility to buy excess power from individuals or private companies?  If so, will the rate you will be paying for solar reflect credit for the excess they may be selling to the electric company?  After all, they are using your roof.

Will your contract include all servicing and repair costs?  Can you move the equipment if your sell your house?  And, something I never saw addressed in anything I read; at the end of the least who owns the equipment?