Having a solar-powered home was once the domain of the eco-affluent—the ones who could afford large, roof-mounted solar panels that cost tens of thousands of dollars. But the price of entry continues to drop as the technology improves, bringing more manufacturers, distributors and installers into the field. Government subsidies in the form of tax rebates have made solar technology even more attractive to consumers looking to reduce their energy bill and their carbon footprint.
Up until now, the home improvement channel has largely watched from the sidelines as companies that specialize in solar technology feed this growing market. Between 2004 and 2009, U.S. shipments of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy systems jumped from $502 million to $3.5 billion, according to SBI Energy, a division of
“The strong growth for solar as a whole is going to begin in 2010, as sales in the PV sector continue to accelerate, and declines in module and system component prices become far more moderate, a 10% to 15% drop,” the SBI report said.
Lumberyards, home centers and home improvement stores will no longer be stepping aside so the solar “specialists” can do their jobs. This time, they’ll be waiting on the roof, ready to install whatever the consumer wants. Standing behind them will be distributors like BlueLinx, which has recently added solar energy panels to its nationwide supply chain. Manufacturers like CertainTeed and Dow are also moving forward with new products that integrate solar power into roofing materials.
And, as evidence of the popularity and feasibility of solar projects for the serious DIYer, there’s “Photovoltaic Design & Installation for Dummies,” which hit the bookstores in September.
Big boxes go solar
Home Depot was the first home improvement chain to offer residential solar energy, introducing it to three San Diego stores in September 2001. The Southern California pilot was done through the installed sales department in partnership with AstroPower solar systems, a Newark, Del., company. At the time, Home Depot offered two packages, with the average cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Plans called for a 70-store rollout in California.
Nine years later, Home Depot has changed suppliers and partners—it works with a number of third-party installers now—and expanded the program to 600 stores in nine states that offer rebate incentives: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and California.
The product, BP Solar panels, is a grid-tied system, which means it feeds energy back and forth into utility companies. The panels can be purchased online or by special order at the Pro Desk in any Home Depot store.
“It’s usually professional electricians who buy [the solar panels],” said Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes. “Many of these panels are geared toward auxiliary power, while the installed solar is grid-tied for a whole-house solution.”
Home Depot associates field the occasional query about DIY solar, but Holmes noted what is commonly known in the solar technology field: It requires expertise. “We tried ‘off-the-shelf ‘ DIY panels,” Holmes said, “and discontinued the program the same year.”
Lowe’s entered the solar power market in December 2009 with a product that claims to be an easy-to-install panel. The North Carolina retailer’s partner, Akeena Solar, uses a new technology that puts out alternating current (AC). Traditionally, solar photovoltaic panels use a device called an inverter to convert direct current (DC) into household AC.
“Now that homeowners can see Andalay AC solar panels on the shelves at Lowe’s, there is even more interest in installing solar for their own homes,” said Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena Solar, in the December announcement. “Homeowners now have the option to install a few panels on their own or use Akeena’s professional installation services available through Lowe’s. Lowe’s and Akeena Solar give homeowners the flexibility they need to get reliable solar energy and immediately decrease their electric bills.”
Akeena Solar, which is now selling its products under the Westinghouse Solar brand, describes its solar energy system design as “modular” because homeowners can gradually add more panels. Electricians, HVAC contractors and experienced DIYers can install the AC panels without specialized training, according to the manufacturer.
After an introduction in 21 California stores, Lowe’s expanded its Westinghouse Solar panels into 57 locations, all of which feature its new Energy Center product assortment.
“They’re in states that are good candidates for solar projects based on their electricity rates and incentives,” explained Steve Salazar, a public relations manager for Lowe’s. “Those stores carry the 180-watt AC solar panels, but they can be purchased through special order at all locations.”
For those who are serious about solar energy, designing and installing a system will involve some time and money. Their investment will pay off—particularly if they live in certain states—but it may take several years. And the initial setup is not a weekend warrior project.
Washington Supply Co., a 117-year-old lumberyard and home center in Washington Depot, Conn., has been marketing solar power systems for the past two years. Its own PV system, installed in January, generates one-third of its energy needs and serves as a demonstration model for customers and visiting dignitaries. (A state grant paid for approximately one-third of its costs.) A 32-in. touchscreen display in the front of the store shows the building’s energy generation and consumption in real time.
CFO Bob Whelan doesn’t expect to see a return on his $50,000 solar investment for at least seven years. But there are other intangible benefits to reap.
“It’s positioned us as the green and sustainable information source for builders and architects in western Connecticut,” Whelan said. “We become involved in building projects earlier because they see us as more of a solution. [It] drives more business our way for all products—conventional and more esoteric.”
In addition to selling the full assortment found in any home center, Washington Supply offers five different types of solar PV systems for its residential and commercial customers. They sell the systems designed and installed, in partnership with an engineer and an electrician. “We’re part of a troika,” Whelan explained. On the residential side, they average 12 solar energy systems a year.
Ask Whelan what the most difficult part of the sale is, and he says: “Negotiating the state [rebate] programs.” Whereas the federal incentive is pretty clear—30% of the cost of the system, including installation, can be claimed as a tax credit—state incentives vary. And some legislatures and governors will borrow from or simply raid funds set aside for energy rebates. Consumers, as well as retailers, have to stay informed on which rebate spigots are still flowing with solar energy incentives.
Solar panel kits may be surfacing in a lot more lumberyards next year, now that BlueLinx has added them to its product lineup. The Atlanta distributor began carrying solar PV panels, along with the inverters, racking and mounting systems this past spring. Several vendors are in the mix, and solar-powered attic fans and solar tubes are also being offered.
“It made perfect sense that solar would go through our industry. It just never has,” said Ken Castleberry, manager of renewable resources for BlueLinx. He observed that “most solar suppliers can’t meet the need for a new or updated roof. Our customers can.” Castleberry also noted that the general contractor—who often oversees the roofer and the electrician—is a decision-maker during a remodeling project that involves a solar upgrade.
The PV panels are ordered through any of BlueLinx’s 70 warehouses and delivered to the job site. Vendors will work with homeowners or commercial customers to analyze energy needs, design the appropriate system and seek out rebates from state governments or local utility companies. All the systems now sold are grid-tied, but BlueLinx may add a battery-based solar system in the future, Castleberry said.
One of the most interesting emerging technologies is the solar roof shingle, an idea that makes perfect sense, at least in concept. Two roofing manufacturers showed a prototype at this year’s International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, and CertainTeed announced Aug. 31 that it was ready to start shipping.
Called the EnerGen photovoltaic roofing system, the CertainTeed product is a thin-film laminate that lies between traditional asphalt roofing shingles. It is designed for new or reroofing jobs and comes in a pre-engineered kit. More than 100 roofing contractors have been trained through CertainTeed in Arizona, California and Hawaii. The company has established a new services group to roll out the training to other states.
Mark Stancroff, general manager of CertainTeed Solar, said the product has been in development for two years. The company expects to sell EnerGen through its regular channels to distributors like ABC Supply and Beacon, where roofer contractors are itching to get into the solar game.
“A lot of guys are seeing solar installers come in and run the whole job.” Stancroff said. “They’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do this, too?’”
EnerGen is “shingle neutral,” meaning that any kind of asphalt shingle can frame it. But CertainTeed is working on a shingle-specific solar roofing tile that could be ready in the next six to nine months, according to Stancroff.
Dow has also been testing a solar roofing tile that it calls the Powerhouse Solar Shingles. Electrical circuitry is integrated into each shingle, which has the appearance of asphalt, and the shingles are connected by wireless plug-style connectors. A regular roofing contractor can install them, and an electrician is brought in later to finish the job.
Dow’s building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) shingles should be commercially available in 2011.