Ben Kunz wanted to do "the green thing" and save on his electric bill without paying a lot of money up front. So instead of buying a solar system for his house in Cheshire, Connecticut, he leased one.
"I thought it was a pretty good deal," he said. "I lean a little environmentalist so I'm concerned about global warming."
Increasing numbers of U.S. homeowners are relying on the sun to meet much of their hot water and electricity needs. In fact, residential electricity produced by solar in the first quarter of 2013 was almost 10 times higher than that generated in 2008, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
But the potential for more is huge.
Consider this: "The amount of solar energy falling on the United States in one hour of noontime summer sun is about equal to the annual U.S. electricity demand," the Energy Department says in its SunShot Vision Study.
"Saving money and being energy efficient rank really high with consumers today," said Kit Selzer, a senior editor at Better Homes and Gardens.
A Gallup poll in March found that 76 percent of Americans thought the country should put more emphasis on producing domestic energy from solar power.
So what's stopping more folks from going solar?
"We found that a lot of people were afraid to go solar because they were too afraid of what they didn't know," said Ketch Ryan, who had a solar energy system installed in her Chevy Chase, Maryland, house several years ago.
To help neighbors, Ryan and Kirk Renaud founded a cooperative, Common Cents Solar, "to make sure we didn't have to reinvent the wheel. We can do it together and we can do it more efficiently."
The first thing is to get your roof assessed to see whether it's viable for solar. The roof's condition, material and angle are among the considerations.
One misconception is that you need a south-facing roof.
While south is optimal, solar can be stalled on roofs facing east and west, too.
"Walk outside on a sunny day and look at the roof," advises Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Is the roof covered with shade? If not, your house may be a good candidate for solar. Some solar companies use Google maps for a first look before sending out staff for a fuller assessment.
Homeowners also worry that solar may not be viable in northern states. California leads the U.S. in the capacity of installed residential solar units, with Arizona a distant second. But New Jersey comes in at No. 3 and Massachusetts is eighth, according to the association.
"People are solar-new in Connecticut," Kunz said. "They never see it and they don't know it works."
But Kunz says he's saving money. He now pays about $140 or $150 for electricity each month, down from about $220. And the total includes his $115 lease payment to SolarCity, a California-based solar company that operates in 14 states.
Cost is another factor that holds people back.
Purchasing and installing a solar system can cost thousands of dollars, depending on how much electricity you want to generate.
"You'll need to pay for it up front," Resch said. Some people use home equity loans, or lines of credit or other means of financing.
Want to go solar but don't have the money to buy a system? Try leasing one.
Leasing has opened up solar to a whole new group of homeowners, said Jonathan Bass, SolarCity spokesman.
"We think of ourselves as an energy provider," he said. "Installation is free and the customer pays for electricity."
Solar-generated electricity, that is, for a monthly fee. The cost is lower than if purchased through the electric company.
"We insure the system for the customer," Bass said. "We provide monitoring service. We provide repair service... . And we also guarantee the performance of the system."
Jeff Hodgkinson of Mesa, Arizona, said it was that full-service option that prompted him to lease. He paid the full cost of the 20-year lease at the start and expects to begin realizing the savings in about five years.
Going solar for his electricity and hot water was part of a broader effort, he said. "We had moved into a new home," he said. "One of the things I wanted to do was make the house very energy efficient."
The Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has a similar message. Sam Rashkin, chief architect in the agency's Building Technologies Office, said people should consider solar "If it complements an energy-efficient house and can reduce their energy requirements." He said other energy-efficient features include well-insulated walls, high-performance windows, and energy efficient heating and air conditioning systems
If your options include solar, don't think you can drop the electric company altogether, though. You'll need it as a backup for those cloudy, rainy or snowy days when sun is at a minimum, or when you're using more electricity than your solar system can produce.
But on those days when you're producing more electricity that you can use, many states allow you to put the excess back into the electricity grid for use by others. Called net metering, it will show up as a credit on your bill.
"You're seeing your meter going backward," Ryan said. "That's fun."
Also on HuffPost:
Top Renewable Energy Sources
Renewable energy made up 9 percent of all energy consumed in 2011, according to the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>, and that number is <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/pdf/0383er(2013).pdf">predicted to grow throughout the next decade</a>. Here's a breakdown of the top sources of renewable energy in the country, from wind to water and everything in between. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Solar Power - 2 Percent
Solar power and photovoltaic cells make up the smallest percentage of U.S. renewable energy production, but its future looks fairly promising. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/03/warren-buffett-solar-power_n_2398816.html">invested $2.5 billion in Calif. solar company SunPower</a> earlier this year. Also, unlike other sources of renewables, energy can also be generated by small-scale solar installations (like on the rooftop of a home or business), and<a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=8570"> declining costs</a> have made solar much more affordable. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Geothermal - 2 Percent
Geothermal power captures naturally occurring heat from the earth to turn it into power. The renewable source is geographically dependent, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=3970">but the Western half of the U.S.</a> has many promising locations for power plants, <a href="http://www.geysers.com/">like The Geysers in Calif.</a>, the largest geothermal power plant in the world. The U.S. is the largest producer of geothermal power on the planet, but growth hasn't kept up with wind or solar development in recent years. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Waste - 5 Percent
Believe it or not, burned garbage accounts for 5 percent of all renewable energy created in the U.S. each year. More than 29 million tons of municipal solid waste was burned in 2010 to create steam to spin turbines and generate power, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7990"> and there are more than 75</a> waste-to-energy plants in the country. Emissions regulations have been in place at waste incineration plants since the 1960s, but the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/ncer/publications/research_results_needs/combustionEmmissionsReport.pdf">EPA warned in a 2006 report that the toxins released</a> during the process could pose a serious environmental risk if not strictly enforced. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wind - 13 Percent
The amount of wind power has grown for each of the past three years throughout the U.S. and accounted for the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=9931">largest growth in capacity</a> of any energy resource in the country last year. Wind turbines now supply more than <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/19/us-utilities-windpower-usa-idUSBRE89I0TX20121019">50,000 megawatts a year,</a> enough to power 13 million homes, according to Reuters. Federal tax credits, which were set to expire at the end of 2012, have made wind farms an attractive form of renewable energy. Congress <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/davelevitan/2013/01/02/wind-power-tax-credit-survives-fiscal-cliff-deal/">approved an extension of the credits</a> through the end of 2013. After production, wind turbines are net zero, meaning they require no energy and produce no emissions. The only problematic thing generated in some cases other than clean power has been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/24/wind-power-noise-pollution-maine_n_866182.html">a whole lot of noise</a>. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Biofuel - 21 Percent
Biofuels, like ethanol, are created from organic matter like corn or soybeans. Gasoline in the U.S. contains 9 percent of the resource by federal mandate under the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/otaq/fuels/renewablefuels/index.htm">Renewable Fuel Standard program,</a> and more than <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">40 percent of the corn crop</a> last year was turned into biofuel. The resource is slightly more unstable than other renewables because it depends on the productivity of farms - <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">drought or other environmental problems</a> can significantly lower yields and increase prices. On average, <a href="http://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/flexible_fuel_emissions.html">ethanol has 20 percent fewer emissions</a> than traditional gasoline but some types, like <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol">cellulosic ethanol,</a> cut greenhouse gas emissions more than 85 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wood - 22 Percent
Timber accounts for nearly a quarter of all renewable energy created in the country. <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/10/121022-wood-for-heating/">Rising energy costs </a>have led to an upswing in wood burning over the past decade, and nearly <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/steo/report/winterfuels.cfm">20 percent of New England homes </a>use wood for heating, according to a National Geographic report. Although it may be a cheaper alternative, wood burning stoves and fireplaces<a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/energyefficiency.html"> release more emissions of fine particles </a> than other home heating methods, according to the EPA. Burning <a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/bestburn.html">good wood in an efficient burner</a> lowers toxic emissions and lost energy. Oh, and always have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors handy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Hydroelectric - 35 Percent
Almost all of the current hydroelectric power plants in the U.S. were <a href="http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/article/hydropower.cfm">built before the mid-1970's</a>, but it's still the highest producing renewable energy source in the country. In 2011, 8 percent of all power created in the U.S. came from hydroelectric sources, but it's also one of the most geographically dependent sources of energy. The Pacific Northwest gets more than half of all power via hydroelectric due to prime geography. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
How To Really Go Renewable
Watch this TED talk on the missing link in the future of renewable energy.