May 11, 2006 12:00 PM PDT

Home builders switch on the 'invisible' solar panels

Now that solar panels aren't the ugly ducklings of architecture, home developers are touting solar energy as the latest feature in new homes.

Twelve developers in California have kicked off plans in recent weeks to integrate solar tiles from PowerLight into hundreds of new homes over the next few years. PowerLight's SunTile solar tiles are integrated into the roof, making them far less obtrusive than conventional solar panels, which are perched in a frame that sits atop a roof.

One of those California developers, Grupe Homes, has begun to sell homes equipped with PowerLight's SunTiles in its Carsten Crossings development in Rocklin, Calif. In less than three months, the company has sold 23 of the 30 green homes it has offered for sale. Those homes also include energy-efficient water heaters and heating systems.

"There is a lot of showing off. They invite their friends over and say 'Look at my house,'" said Grupe executive Mark Fischer. "One competitor tried to steal one of our buyers away by offering $30,000 off a home."

Centex Homes, meanwhile, has started to put similar systems in its Avignon homes in Pleasanton. Another developer, Lennar, will insert solar roof tiles into 450 homes going up in Roseville in the next two years.

State and federal subsidies, which total around $7,000 per home, play a significant part in the demand for solar. Some developers, such as Grupe, are also absorbing a significant portion of the extra costs of including solar and energy-efficiency technology because of the current buyer-favorable market.

Dark solar panels

Aesthetics, though, can't be ignored. Fischer said Grupe has contemplated solar for the past few years, but outside investors in the developments were typically lukewarm to the idea.

"It made it easier to sell to investors. Everybody is used to those solar arrays that sit on the roof. When they saw this, they were pleasantly surprised," Fisher said.

Bill Kelly, vice president of PowerLight's residential division, concurred: "It is a huge issue. When most people think of solar, they picture something that isn't attractive. That may be the biggest issue for builders."

The unusual design of the SunTile comes largely from SunPower, founded by Richard Swanson, a former Stanford University engineering professor. (SunPower makes the solar panels that PowerLight integrates into a roof tile.)

SunPower has invented a novel silicon solar panel that collects more energy per square inch than a standard silicon solar panel primarily because of the way the electrical contacts are inserted into the panel. SunPower's panels are also thinner.

In the end, that means that a SunPower-PowerLight tile system can harvest as much energy as a conventional system on a frame. The overall costs, however, are about the same.

"It makes for a panel that is a little more expensive to make because it is smaller, but it reduces the installation cost," Swanson said. "The whole area of new home construction is the new frontier for this field.

PowerLight has sold solar equipment into the commercial market for years but just started pitching its technology to residential builders a year ago. The first deals for residential homes were announced in late February.

The solar tiles aren't completely invisible and are slightly darker than conventional roof tiles. From a distance, it looks sort of like the roof got patched. Builders usually put the solar-activated tiles on the side and back of the house to further reduce any noticeable differences.

So, how much?
Getting a bottom-line figure on the cost or savings of these solar systems is difficult. Installing one of the roofing systems probably adds about $20,000 to $25,000 to the builder's direct costs, Kelly said. The state of California then gives builders a $4,000 to $6,000 rebate after installation, knocking the net additional cost down to $15,000 to $20,000.

Homeowners then get a $2,000 federal tax credit (which goes directly to the homeowner and not to the builder or developer), bringing the price down to $13,000 to $18,000.

Utility savings can range from $500 to $1,300. Payoff, thus, can be as short as 10 years or as long as 36 years. But math class hasn't ended yet. Utility prices continue to climb, so the payoff time will likely be shorter for many buyers because of the energy bill savings, Kelly said. The solar system also adds to the resale value of the house, he said.

The type and price of homes vary widely. In Pleasanton, the homes Centex builds will sell for more than $1 million and sport 3.5-kilowatt integrated solar systems. These systems will provide about 65 percent to 70 percent of the home's electricity needs. At the other end of the spectrum, Victoria Homes will integrate solar roofs in hundreds of homes in a Victorville subdivision for first-time and middle-income buyers.

The effectiveness of solar systems varies by geography. Most of the developments announced so far are for subdivisions in the long, hot California central valley. Summer temperatures above 100 degrees are common (and often drive up air-conditioning bills.)

While California is the only state where builders have begun to adopt these tiles, deals are expected in New Jersey, Colorado and Arizona, which have passed alternative-energy incentives, according to Kelly.

Right now, buyers are benefiting because the full costs aren't being passed on, but that will likely change.

"We're not charging the full premium, but I expect that we will," said Grupe's Fischer. "In a few years, you will see this everywhere."

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12 comments

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impressive..
If these things can provide 70% of an average home power requirements, then I must say I'm impressed. But electricity isn't very expansive in my area, and the biggest drawback is waiting 10 years until these things begin to save you money. I may consider this in the future though if electricity prices go up a lot.
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Posted by Roman12 (214 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Optimistic
The panels in the picture look pretty flat and cannot be tilted to get a better angle.

I think stating it will provide 65%-70% of total power is optimistic even for the region (SoCal).

There is a brief guide to calculate system requirements here: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.solar-electric.com/solar_system_costs.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.solar-electric.com/solar_system_costs.htm</a>

And a guide to calculate average sun hours/day here:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://rredc.nrel.gov/solar/old_data/nsrdb/redbook/atlas/Table.html" target="_newWindow">http://rredc.nrel.gov/solar/old_data/nsrdb/redbook/atlas/Table.html</a>

I just don't buy the 10 year figure. I can see Joe User not having the money up front, but if you could get a 10 year payback on a solar system that is fixed and mostly horizontal why wouldn't every medium to large company in all of SoCal and AZ be on solar power by now?

A 10 year pay off would mean you ~triple your investment in 30 years.

I applaud them for trying, but it seems everybody is overlooking the most practical solutions.
Posted by Dachi (797 comments )
Link Flag
Powerlight
If your only a home owner don't bother, they are not interested in you. On their website they have a button to check if you are a home owner, let you put in your project info and when you click submit, you get the thanks but no thanks. Pretty bad to let you get that far and then get that response.
Posted by clyde6977 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Bad idea!
PV panels produce considerably less power the hotter they get
( the voltage drops directly proportional to temperature). That is
why normal silicon based panels placed on roofs have a gap
between them in the roof to allow for air flow. Any shade that
hits these panels could also cut power to near 0 while it is
shaded depending on how it is wired.

The benefit of having a low-profile installation is nullified then
by the big decrease in performance compared to "traditional"
non low-profile panels.
Posted by durango4 (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Does the temp increase give a clue?
Solar energy collection systems heat up a bit like asphalt or like
very dark roofs, don't they?
Solar energy systems are designed to capture as much light as
possible, unlike the earth which captures 70 percent on the
average.
If solar becomes economic and we really start to use it for
individual and industrial power, and the developing world
eventually does the same, could we end up with another source
of global warming, even after taking the CO2 emission reduction
into account? What about increasing the reflectivity of solar
energy systems to around 30 percent so this effect would be
eliminated? Sure, it would reduce energy production
commensurately, but it would eliminate what could be a serious
problem in the long run.
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
Link Flag
Start Towards Energy Independence
I feel if we in the US want energy independence, or at least a greater degree of it, we need to look at small-scale power sources like these.

Even if we only received, say, 20% of the nation's energy needs from solar power, that would be a significant lessening of the amount of oil we use.

Each step we make towards energy independence is also a step towards freedom because we wouldn't need to interfere in the local politics of areas of the world where we are not wanted.
Posted by bluemist9999 (1020 comments )
Reply Link Flag
California developers had planned to harness the solar energy via SunTile rather than solar panel. The other unique feature of these homes includes energy efficient water-heater. Developers such as Grupe and many others have decided to use sunTile or
Sunpower is a company that is founded by Richard Swanson (a former Professor of Standford University) is the manufacturer of these SolarTiles which is more effective than solar panel. Deals for such tiles from other states of USA are increasing.

In Delhi/NCR regions the real estate sector is on boom and many of the properties offer solar-panel frames; that are attached at the roofs. The properties in India can be bought at low-costs in comparison to US-states?. For more details go through this site or just dial: 0120-4338222 or 800-232-2343.

http://www.ncrdealer.com/
Posted by PropertyAgent (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
California developers had planned to harness the solar energy via SunTile rather than solar panel. The other unique feature of these homes includes energy efficient water-heater. Developers such as Grupe and many others have decided to use sunTile or
Sunpower is a company that is founded by Richard Swanson (a former Professor of Standford University) is the manufacturer of these SolarTiles which is more effective than solar panel. Deals for such tiles from other states of USA are increasing.

http://www.ncrdealer.com/

In Delhi/NCR regions the real estate sector is on boom and many of the properties offer solar-panel frames; that are attached at the roofs. The properties in India can be bought at low-costs in comparison to US-states?. For more details go through this site or just dial: 0120-4338222 or 800-232-2343.
Posted by PropertyAgent (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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