Wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable energy sources may have a clean, green appeal, but their size, complicated set-up and aesthetics seem destined to keep them out of the hands of individual homeowners.
Slowly, such perceptions are changing as home improvement retailers begin stocking do-it-yourself kits for eco-friendly tinkerers. In December, 21 Lowe's Energy Center stores in California started selling the first-ever solar panels that customers could buy — at $893 per panel — and take home to install on their own. No contractors necessary.
Akeena Solar, which manufactures the panels, made the process consumer-friendly by streamlining the design. The panels have 80% fewer parts than conventional models, and contain built-in inverters that factor out the tricky process of converting high-voltage DC power over to AC. Each panel generates around 175 watts of electricity — enough to power a big-screen television. Consumers can add additional panels if they're hungry for more energy.
“The PC revolution in the computer industry occurred when new technology made PCs easy to use and affordable,” said Barry Cinnamon, Akeena's chief executive officer. And so his company has tried to do the same for solar panels by making them a shelf-ready commodity.
According to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, a nonprofit industry group, between 500 and 600 megawatts of solar power will be installed across the country in 2010 — double the amount from last year. Ecological concerns aside, consumer interest is also being driven by economics. In addition to saving money on their electric bills, consumers can get a 30% tax credit on any solar equipment purchased and installed before the end of this year.
Other retailers have started dabbling in renewable energy sources. Wal-Mart Stores offers a solar-powered garden rodent repeller for $23, and Costco offers a back-up power kit that includes solar battery chargers and two 123-watt panels.
Lowe's, meanwhile, has jumped right in. The company recently built the Energy Center stores, which sell solar panels and other sustainable products, and plans to soon sell 1,000-watt wind turbines. The stores also have electronic kiosks that educate customers and help them navigate the red tape of registering their purchases and applying for rebates.
“Homeowners are paying more attention than ever to their utility bills,” said Nick Canter, Lowe's executive vice president of merchandising.
Perhaps some in-store refresher courses on ladder safety might also be in order.