Solar power coming to a store near you

Dec 10, 2009 By CHRIS KAHN , AP Energy Writer
Lowe's product service associate manager, Roxy Ramirez , left and product service associate Jim Miner stock the first do-it-yourself home solar panel system by Andalay at Lowe's in the West Hills suburb of Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

(AP) -- Solar technology is going where it has never gone before: onto the shelves at retail stores where do-it-yourselfers can now plunk a panel into a shopping cart and bring it home to install.

Lowe's has begun stocking at its California stores and plans to roll them out across the country next year.

This shows how far the highest of the high-tech technologies has come. Solar power is now accessible to anyone with a ladder, a power drill, and the gumption to climb up on a roof and install the panels themselves.

For Lowe's, it's an opening into a new and potentially lucrative DIY business.

"There's definitely a growing market for this with the number of people moving toward energy efficient homes," spokesman Steven Salazar said.

Buyer be warned, however. The DIY part of solar goes beyond installation.

Professional installers typically handle all the necessary paperwork, like clearance from the local utility and applications for a bevy of government subsidies that can make the system a whole lot cheaper.

"You put solar panels on your roof without a permit, bad things happen to you," said Jeff Wolfe, CEO of solar installer groSolar. "The utility could shut off the power."

Lowe's will staff a kiosk near the panels that provides information on how to apply for rebates.

For anyone willing to tackle the paperwork, Akeena Solar promises a hassle-free installation that will immediately reduce the power you need to buy from the local utility.

Akeena Solar, Inc., based in Los Gatos, Calif., said it designed a system with the novice in mind.

"It's really not a big deal," said CEO Barry Cinnamon. "The most dangerous thing is learning about ladder safety."

The rectangular panels retail at $893 a piece. They produce the same AC power that runs in homes and plug directly into a circuit breaker.

During the day, the solar panels will act like a large battery, producing energy from the sun and pumping it through the circuit breaker to appliances inside. On cloudy days or at night, of course, homeowners will again draw 100 percent of their power from the grid.

To install, you'll need to carry the 40-pound panels to the roof and drill holes - two per panel - into the rafters. After adding a barrier to prevent leaks and a couple of brackets, the panels are bolted to the roof.

The home would need a dedicated circuit breaker, just like a washer and dryer.

One panel packs nowhere near the punch of a full solar system.

A typical solar system installed by a professional usually has 20 panels. Each Akeena panel will generate about 175 watts of electricity, about enough to power a flat screen television.

If you want more solar power, you can snap another panel to the first, kind of like Legos.

"People might want to put up one, see if it works. Then with their next paycheck, they may buy four more," Cinnamon said.

Lowe's is offering software that allows the homeowner to monitor the performance of each panel through the Internet. The panels are designed to withstand rough weather including hail storms, and they're backed with a 25-year warranty covering defects.

Cinnamon, who mounted the panels on his own home in San Francisco (though he hired a contractor to do the electrical work), said homeowners can save a few thousand dollars, depending on the size of the system, by skipping a professional installer.

Rival home improvement store Home Depot did offer solar panels briefly this year as part of a pilot project, but those were developed for professional contractors and DIYers with a higher level of technical expertise. You can still buy the on Home Depot's Web site.

The system offered by Lowe's is new territory for solar, putting a small system in reach of almost anyone.

"That's going to grab a whole lot of people who never thought of solar in their home," said Norman Deschamps, an independent analyst for SBI who specializes in the retail market for energy efficient renovations. "The walk-in market is fundamentally new."

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Velanarris
5 / 5 (5) Dec 10, 2009
I installed one of these on my father's house for him. When they say the paperwork is 99% of the installation, they're not kidding. Physical installation was a joke. Anyone comfortable with basic carpentry or even a rank novice who pays attention to install instructions can get this package installed and wired up.

I needed assistance from a family friend working for PSNH to file the paperwork properly.

Now that solar is traveling down this avenue, I don't see a reason to not attach a few to the home. They are functional and the 25 year warrantee covers abnormal degradation if the installation is performed properly.

The 125 Watt statement appears to be accurate as so far, we'll see how much that degrades over the next few years. Keep in mind, 125 Watts is the amount of electricity used to keep 5 60 watt equivalent CFLs going. That's at a cost of about $900 in parts and another 2 to 4 hours of labor depending on layout of the panels for 5 light bulbs worth of energy.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (5) Dec 10, 2009
continued: these systems are a good experiment, but the ROI isn't quite there yet, at least not to a point of reasonable widespread propagation.
danman5000
2.8 / 5 (5) Dec 10, 2009
Just curious, but what sort of paperwork? It seems odd that the utility would require you to tell them how you're improving your own house. Sort of like if you had to call the power company every time you lit up your wood fireplace to provide heat instead of using their electricity.
fleem
4.8 / 5 (6) Dec 10, 2009
The paperwork and certification is only necessary if it is a grid-tie system. You can do whatever you want (within reason) if it is off-grid.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (4) Dec 10, 2009
the paperwork involved is to notify the company that you're "feeding the grid" and the subsequent paperwork to address the matters of metering, taxation, grid-tie, etc. (That is of course above and beyond any building or electrical permits your local and state authorities may desire).

As for off-grid, these panels are not substantial enough to use solely off grid unless you have an incredibly large, sun-faced surface area to mount the panels on or other alternate means of electrical generation.

If you're looking to start with easy solar to give it a very small test, these are worth a shot. If you're looking to substantially reduce your grid fed usage you'll want to look at the more professional systems.
danman5000
4.3 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2009
Makes sense. Thanks for the clarification and advice.

Personally I think I'll wait on solar until they can bump up efficiency substantially. I'm wary of covering my entire roof with expensive components, especially if there's any chance I might move before they end up paying for themselves in savings. Hopefully advances in this field come soon so we can all branch off into good, clean alternative energy at the consumer level.
Velanarris
3.5 / 5 (2) Dec 10, 2009
The concern I have is how durable the coverings are. They cells themselves didn't really appear to have much in the way of scratch protection.
Donutz
4 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2009
Personally I think I'll wait on solar until they can bump up efficiency substantially.


There've been some very interesting and promising postings on physorg the last couple of years about significant improvements in solar technology. Most of them still have yet to make their way to commercial products. Once they do, I bet ROI will be more than acceptable.
Velanarris
4 / 5 (2) Dec 10, 2009
There've been some very interesting and promising postings on physorg the last couple of years about significant improvements in solar technology. Most of them still have yet to make their way to commercial products. Once they do, I bet ROI will be more than acceptable.

Problem with that train of thought is that solar energy generation has been around for a LONG time. Our efficiency measures today are not far ahead of what they were a few decades ago.
barakn
4 / 5 (2) Dec 10, 2009
I just checked out the prices at Lowe's, works out to $6.62/watt, making it difficult if not impossible to recoup the initial cost (not even taking into account the cost of inverter, etc.) within the 25 year period covered by the warranty. One would have to rely on tax credits, rebates, etc. to make this worthwhile. There are cheaper panels elsewhere.
Donutz
4 / 5 (1) Dec 10, 2009
Problem with that train of thought is that solar energy generation has been around for a LONG time. Our efficiency measures today are not far ahead of what they were a few decades ago.


Yeah, the other problem is the attitude "If I just wait a few more months, they'll have a cheaper more powerful PC". At some point you have to just dive in. But in this specific subject, there have been some interesting and significant advances in the last year or two that should change the playing field enough to bring in people who formerly didn't think it was worth it.
Donutz
5 / 5 (5) Dec 10, 2009
I just checked out the prices at Lowe's, works out to $6.62/watt, making it difficult if not impossible to recoup the initial cost

The other thing is that the motivations aren't always strictly monetary. Early adopters of hybrid vehicles won't get their money out of it either, but by buying one you are making a social statement, *and* effectively voting with your dollars about what you think is important.

bg1
not rated yet Dec 10, 2009
$893/175 watts = $5.10/watt + install

I dunno.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Dec 10, 2009
Problem with that train of thought is that solar energy generation has been around for a LONG time. Our efficiency measures today are not far ahead of what they were a few decades ago.


That may be so, to an extent. However, price per Watt has never been lower, and it continues to go down pretty rapidly. Right now, if I understand correctly, the main problem is still with supplies of solar-quality polysilicon; as more foundries come online and begin to churn out the stuff in mass quantities, silicon-based PV setups will probably drop in price by another 50%. (I'm not considering non-silicon technologies both existing and in the pipeline, such as thin-film and polymers, because they either don't have the performance, or they don't have the endurance, or they won't scale up well for sustained mass production due to utilization of rare elements.)
PPihkala
5 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2009
I wonder why all this talk about PV, when solar heat collectors are much more efficient? And you don't need to file any paperwork to add this pre-heater for your warm water boiler or water heating system. And solar thermal collectors should be much cheaper also.
antialias
5 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2009
True. We have both on the roof (PV and solar heat collector) of about equal size (and this is not in a sun-drenched country).
The solar heat collector FAR outperforms the PV in terms of cost benefits even though the current the PV feeds into the grid gets subsidized.

So heat collectors should come first - and when you've maxed that out then you can think about PV.
ormondotvos
4.7 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2009
1) Solar hot water is maybe ten times faster cost payback. I have a 4x10 panel, it has dropped my gas bill by forty bucks a month.

2) If you have a solar electric panel on the roof making 110 volts and feeding into your breaker panel, it is ALSO CONNECTED TO THE POWERLINES. If the power goes out, and you are feeding power backwards into the lines, a powerline repair person could get electrocuted! That's where the paperwork comes in. The power company needs to know about that source of power.

Ideally, the panel on the roof should turn off if the power fails, coming back on only when the power returns. Tricky bit of business there.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2009
Ideally, the panel on the roof should turn off if the power fails, coming back on only when the power returns. Tricky bit of business there.

Proper transfer switch prevents that. Just set it the switch so that when main power is lost it closes the circuit between you and the grid, similar to how you set up a backup generator.
GBogumil
not rated yet Dec 11, 2009
At current electric rates in florida given by progress energy (127.31 per 1,000 kWh) it will take 56,554 hours of 125W output to recoup the $900.

56,554.87h = (1000 * 1000W * 3600s) * $900 / $127.31 / 125W / 3600(s/h)

I don't think I'll buy one. That's 19 years of 8h/d full power before it's paid for.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2009
$893/175 watts = $5.10/watt + install

I dunno.


Plus $250 for a DC/AC inverter,, plus $380 for a building/electrical permit, plus about $80 for a substantial amount of #2AWG and a significant amount of #6AWG.

All in all it was about $1800 for one panel, DIY installed, not counting utility filing fees (another $200), and if you don't have the tools, add another few hundred to outfit yourself with the necessary gear to refit your home.

And don't forget, a lot of towns will want you to have the inspector come out and that is another fee.

It's a lot more than $900 and it's 50 watts less than you calculate assuming you have a sunfacing area.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Dec 11, 2009
@GBogumil,

Where are you getting the 125 W from? The article states,

Each Akeena panel will generate about 175 watts of electricity


So you're off by 40%.

@Velanarris,

The start-up fees you mention will not increase substantially should you then choose to add another panel. Or a few more.

Ultimately, this isn't about cost efficiency (yet) so much as it is about early adoption. People don't buy large-screen TVs because they expect to earn the money back by watching them. Putting up solar panels is an act of voting with your dollars to support a new direction in energy generation and distribution.

Plus, the installation is likely to add some resale value to your house -- so should be considered an improvement to the property; hence not all the money is necessarily "lost" right off the bat. Over time, you get to depreciate it off your taxes, too.
Velanarris
not rated yet Dec 12, 2009
@PE,

You need to file for a permit for each installation, as well as report expansion or reduction of your system each time for my local region.

As for resale value, actually solar panels hurt most homes as they're rather far from aestetically pleasing to the average buyer.
Duude
5 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2009
A warranty covering abnormal degradation is cause for concern if there isn't a complete definition of what that may be. It could be that normal degradation might turn 125W into 60W in 5 or 10 years. That would be a high cost for a lousy return on investment. Can't even see why one might buy one. The solar cell on my calculator lasted about 5 years but then the $10 it cost doesn't bother me too much.
dk2009
not rated yet Dec 12, 2009
@Velanarris said, "As for resale value, actually solar panels hurt most homes as they're rather far from aestetically pleasing to the average buyer."
AAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!! My response to that is, "So you are going to try to tell me that tar and gravel roofing tiles ARE aesthetically pleasing?" Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and oddly enough, some people WOULD have a negative reaction to seeing solar panels on a house. To the contrary, I'd think, "Hmmm, it would be nice to make my own electricity and not have to pay for it." Of course, sometimes people don't understand the value of what's staring them in the face. Oh well.
CarolinaScotsman
not rated yet Dec 12, 2009
@Velanarris,
Plus $250 for a DC/AC inverter,,

You must have missed the part that said it produced AC power.

The rectangular panels retail at $893 a piece. They produce the same AC power that runs in homes and plug directly into a circuit breaker.

CarolinaScotsman
5 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2009
Oh yeah, in addition, if you're feeding power into the grid, the power company has to pay you for that power (by law). So that amount is knocked off your bill. Not a huge savings, but it helps the cost pay back figures.
Birthmark
5 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2009
This is great news, and commercial solar power will get better and better, because I keep seeing articles on this website about how they're greatly improving the technology. Give it a couple years (maybe just 5) and it'll be a wonderful thing to have. I mean could you have a power outage with solar panels? As long as the sun's beaming you're getting energy. :)) I love technology!!!
Doschx
5 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2009
I think our energy generation capabilities are great. What's not so great is our energy storage. I think we need better tech in the battery department.