Can Solar Panels Really Be Do-it-Yourself?

from USA Today

Following in the footsteps of Home Depot, Sam’s Club, and Costco, Lowes is bringing renewable energy to the masses. As of last Thursday, twenty-one California stores now offer ready-to-install 175 watt solar panels, provided by Akeena Solar of Silicon Valley.

The announcement, which drove Akeena stock up nearly 54 percent, adds to a growing trend to give consumers the ability to install their own PV (and even wind turbines), slicing off the cost of installation.

But whether solar power is really something that can be set-up by a weekend warrior wielding a hammer and a ladder is still up for debate. Sub-par installations by “experienced” solar contractors already weigh on the reputation of the industry. The possibility of thousands of flubbed home DIY systems could worsen that problem. 

Just Add Sun

Unlike other panels now sold retail, the Andalay AC panels have built in power inverters. Photovoltaics produce DC current, but homes run on AC, requiring an inverter, which can be a tricky piece of hardware for your typical do-it-yourselfer. The Andalay AC panels also have integrated racking, wiring and grounding — reducing the overall parts count by 80 percent, according to an Akeena press release.

From the release:

“The PC revolution in the computer industry occurred when new technology made PCs easy to use and affordable,” said Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena Solar. “Likewise, with panels becoming plug-and-play appliances, the solar revolution has started. The availability of solar panels in Lowe’s stores makes it easy for homeowners to go solar and is a big step toward getting solar on every sunny rooftop.”

Still Not Cheap or Easy

A typical home requires about 5,000 watts of solar power to break-even on power usage, or about 29 Andalay AC panels. At $893 a pop, that’s $25,514 worth of PV. Of course, that’s before government rebates and other incentives, which can shave more than 50 percent off the cost. Akeena claims a household that pays 44 cents per kilowatt hour can save $132 a year per panel, according to the WSJ. For homes using less electricity, however, returns on this investment are much longer.

But mounting the panels is not the only hurdle to the ambitious eco-friendly DIYer: net electrical output from panels can vary greatly depending on the angle of the roof, shading, and other factors. Attaching the array to a household grid could require an electrician. Oh, and the panels are about 40 pounds each, which is a lot of extra weight on a roof.

It’s not rocket science, but it’s also not like adding a new coat of paint, either. Which may be why Akeena itself describes prospective installers as “electricians, HVAC contractors and experienced do-it-yourselfers.”

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.