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"Plug and Play" Solar Panel Kits Offer Homeowners Affordable Alternative Energy Source

A new company aims to make it possible to install a home solar array yourself
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Courtesy of Clarian Technologies

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Imagine a modular solar array that you can install—without too much fear of electrocuting yourself—at a relatively low price. That's the vision of Chad Maglaque and Clarian Technologies, and one that hopes to become a reality by spring 2011.

"The key here is slowing the [electricity] meter down," Maglaque says. "Every kilowatt counts."

The "Sunfish" would work like this: Next spring go to your local hardware store or electronics retailer, purchase a power module, circuit monitor and pluggable solar panel—all the components of the "Sunfish". Return home to swap out a regular electricity outlet for the circuit monitor (not unlike installing a grounded outlet in your bathroom to prevent shock), plug in the 18-kilogram solar panel via the power module in any socket and hang it on the most convenient (and sunny) side of your house, lawn, fence or roof. Then synchronize the power module with the circuit monitor using some form of power metering software—such as Google PowerMeter or Microsoft Hohm—and electricity derived from sunlight will begin to course through the circuit of your home. "We're talking about a [do-it-yourself] handyman on the order of cable guy level of installation," Maglaque says.

Maglaque envisions one to five panel arrays, depending on a homeowner's (or renter's) preference or budget, producing as much as 150 kilowatt-hours of electricity for the building per month—roughly enough to offset one major appliance, such as a refrigerator. One panel, the module and the circuit monitor will cost roughly $799, according to Maglaque. "I see that being $599 in the not-too-distant future," he adds, although it would take as much as four years to pay back that cost in electricity savings even with various rebates and tax credits. "Solar continues to come down in price."

But it is the fact that solar arrays have not come so far down in price that initially inspired the idea: Maglaque looked to install such a solar system at his own home in 2006 but ran into installation and expense issues. "I call an installer, he says it's going to be $30,000 to $40,000. This was me in 2006," he recalls, and would have involved a "parade of contractors.... I was thinking more around $10,000," but then the installation didn't make economic sense in terms of generating electricity—or paying itself back. "These systems are completely out of reach for the average homeowner," he adds. "Everyone's pocketbook is one kilowatt and below. That's where homeowners are."

This fall, the power modules—microinverters manufactured in China—circuit monitors and panels that make up the "Sunfish" concept will undergo UL testing to ensure that they will not overload your home wiring or endanger your household. That UL testing will also ensure that the total system interfaces with the grid safely (your outlet still connects to the grid, after all)—although that precludes the "Sunfish" generating electricity in the event of a grid blackout. "It provides grid synchronous power so if it does flow out back from your meter, you are good and safe," Maglaque says, although that is an unlikely occurrence given that the average American home uses 920 kilowatt-hours a month. And Maglaque says that he is talking with major brands about potentially partnering on a "solar in a box" product that would put the whole package together—panel, module and circuit monitor.

Already, a three-panel, 600-watt, BP Solar panel array plus microinverter power module is pumping power into Clarian Technologies headquarters in cloudy Bellevue, Wash., using a circuit monitor running Google PowerMeter to track its output—a "Sunfish" prototype. And Clarian is not the only company thinking this way; Andalay Solar has a similar microinverter and panel array for sale now, although it requires a higher power plug (like the one for a dryer or other heavy-duty electric appliances), among other differences.

The best part? If Clarian is successful and moves to a different location, it can simply unplug the system and bring it with them. Try that with a typical roof-mounted solar array.

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