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Leviton sees its growth in leasing home solar systems

David Edison Sloane, Thomas Edison’s great-grandson, has become

David Edison Sloane, Thomas Edison’s great-grandson, has become the home solar systems spokesman for Leviton, a Melville firm expanding into leased home solar systems. It has plans for the Long Island market soon. (Aug. 3, 2012) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Leviton Manufacturing, one of Long Island's largest companies, with revenues of more than $1 billion, has taken a giant step into the residential solar-energy business with a lease-based program that addresses a major drawback of systems: cost.

The Melville-based maker of electrical components said it has already begun marketing and installing systems with a no-money-down option in California, New York City, Westchester and Rockland, with plans to enter the Long Island market within a year, before going national.

"It's an absolutely huge opportunity," said William Poulin, senior director of business development for residential renewables at Leviton. "Solar really does work."

The company has also contracted with the great-grandson of Thomas Alva Edison to be a chief spokesman for its solar foray. David Edison Sloane, a professor of English at Connecticut's University of New Haven, said he undertook the new role because he, like his great grandfather, is a big advocate of solar. "Our family philosophy all the way back to Edison has been a green philosophy," he said.

Poulin said he expects the Long Island market to accommodate "hundreds of thousands" of leased solar systems. LIPA has 1.1 million customers. Leviton, a 106-year-old privately held and family-run company long known for electric switches, sockets, lighting and electronics products, has developed a system it said can be installed in homes in just a day. It's all part of a new line of Leviton-branded solar products that will eventually be offered to outside installers, and for commercial markets, Poulin said.

The systems won't immediately be available on Long Island because Long Island Power Authority rules prohibit third-party leasing companies from receiving the rebates residents now receive on purchased systems, Leviton said. But Poulin said Leviton has met with LIPA about easing the restrictions, which the company expects could change within a year. Leviton is working with an outside leasing firm called SunRun.

Systems are installed by local companies under contract to Leviton, wear Leviton logos and comply with the company's standards. All the equipment is covered under a 20-year warranty, the term of the lease. It's a new model for the company, which only last year began installing electric-car chargers in homes.

Under the scenario being offered by Leviton, residential customers would not own their systems, but instead pay a monthly fee to the leasing firm -- varying depending on how much money they put down at signing. Customers would still receive a separate, although greatly reduced, monthly bill from the utility company. Tax credits and utility rebates go to the leasing company, not the homeowner.

LIPA said it is "investigating opportunities" in residential solar leasing programs. Local solar installers generally support leasing, but have concerns.

"Leasing, because it's so easy to do, it could eat the $25-million [LIPA solar] budget pretty much overnight," said Sail Van Nostrand, owner of installer Energy by Choice in Northport and chairman of the Long Island Solar Energy Industry Association. "What happens to the local businessman?"

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