NEW YORK (MainStreet) —The solar energy industry has slogged along in the shadows over the past few years, plagued by expensive equipment, lackluster performance and high costs to consumers who want to go the alternative energy route but couldn't afford to do so.

All that might — might — be changing this year, if researchers at Stanford University have their homework right. Their research shows global solar energy — specifically solar photovoltaic panels — has generated enough energy over the past year to surpass the amount of energy it took to build and pay for the energy needed to create those solar panels.

Furthermore, the Stanford report estimates that between 2015 and 2020, solar energy will have created enough juice to cover all of its historic creation costs.

It's taken a while, but solar is evidently ready for its day in the sun.

"This analysis shows that the industry is making positive strides," says Michael Dale, a senior fellow at the university's Global Climate & Energy Project. "Despite its fantastically fast growth rate, solar energy is producing — or just about to start producing — a net energy benefit to society."

With U.S. electricity costs rising by 21%, and Americans consuming about 7.4 tons of carbon dioxide to heat their homes, keep their lights burning and their refrigerators cold, is it time for consumers to get off the electric grid and "go solar"?

That's a personal choice, but it seems financing solar power in the average U.S. home is within reach. Some U.S. homeowners are already making the leap.

"I was able to go solar with no money down through financing," says Glen Takabayashi, a retired Marine colonel and Temecula, Calif., homeowner who recently had his home fitted with solar panels. "Now my system is really cutting my electric bill."

SolarWorld, a Camarillo, Calif., provider of residential and commercial solar panels, says consumers can save 5% to 10% on energy costs annually — that's up to 200% over a 20-year period, potentially. Add federal state and local government energy subsidies and you can slash energy costs by up to 50%, SolarWorld says.

Like most solar providers, SolarWorld offers consumers and businesses financing — in some cases, no-money-down financing — for solar installations and can guarantee a monthly energy bill that is less than their current electricity bills, with maintenance, repairs and insurance covered.

Put up to $5,000 down and consumers can "lock in" a fixed per-month solar energy cost that offers stronger energy savings, the firm says.

Right now, SolarWorld is offering no-money-down plans only to California residents, but the company says it expects to expand the offering to residents of Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Expect other solar firms to follow SolarWorld's lead and offer no-down payment financing for solar installations at a time the industry appears to be growing brighter.

If conventional energy bills continue to rise, homeowners and business owners may just decide to take the solar industry up on the offer.