The Report

Will DIY solar make an impact?

Will DIY solar make an impact?

Posting in Technology | From Issue 02 November 25, 2013

Startups like SolarPod could make it simpler for homeowners to harness the power of the sun, especially in underserved rural areas.

Mouli Vaidyanathan was a career engineer at Texas Instruments and other companies when he suddenly found himself unemployed in 2009.

Vaidyanathan, who has a degree in metallurgical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, says he’d long found solar power intriguing. Living in Minnesota and suddenly with lots of time on his hands, he began studying the solar market and discovered what he believes to be inefficiencies in the model, as well as an untapped market in rural areas.

“The whole solar industry is completely fragmented, with many moving parts doing different jobs,” Vaidyanathan says. “If you were to make a car where the tire manufacturer didn’t care how the tire fit into the car, as long as the tire was great, that wouldn’t be a good car. You don’t hire different companies to build different parts of a car, but we do that with solar panel systems, with installers, inverters, and so on.”

Vaidyanathan believed if he could create a residential solar power system that individual homeowners could put together by themselves, costs could come down and the process would be greatly simplified.

And so in 2010, the SolarPod was born, a do-it-yourself system patented by Vaidyanathan and his company, Mouli Engineering.

Vaidyanathan says SolarPod customers will save from 30 percent to 50 percent compared with an average residential solar installation, depending on whether the home is in a rural or metropolitan area. “The difference is that in rural areas far from where the solar companies are located, they’re going to charge more to come to your house and install the system,” he notes.

SolarPod's do-it-yourself (DIY) configuration comes in two models: SolarPod GridTied, which plugs directly into a dedicated branch circuit 240-volt receptacle and can be integrated into a home’s electrical system; and SolarPod Standalone, which comes preassembled with 920 watts of solar panels, an 1,800-watt inverter, a charge controller, cables and plugs, and two high-performance 100Ah AGM batteries.

The basic model is powerful enough to run a refrigerator, a television and more when the sun is out, Vaidyanathan says.

The SolarPod starts at $3,200 plus shipping, which generally runs from $100 to $225 per unit. Currently, it must be purchased through SolarPod’s Web site. Aside from the possible help of an electrician to assist with wiring on the roof, the unit is billed as the world’s first plug-and-play solar installation option.

SolarPod’s cost of $4 per watt isn’t too different from the average for professionally installed residential solar systems, typically $4.50 to $5 per watt. But Vaidyanathan estimates that SolarPod generates “15 percent to 20 percent” more energy than a conventional system of the same size, and it gives owners the option to move the device as the angle of the sun changes. (Owners can move the SolarPod’s tilt angle by removing a bolt on the telescopic back leg, which takes about five minutes.)

Residential solar sales continue to accelerate. The Solar Market Insight Report, produced by Solar Energy Industries Association, estimates there were 27,000 new residential solar installations in the second quarter of 2013; in 2012 there were more than 80,000 new installations total.

With other DIY solar companies like Wholesale Solar and BuildItSolar also hitting the market, will this undercut bigger solar panel manufacturers selling their wares at higher prices?

Two solar company executives aren’t worried. Joe Morrissey, vice president of sales for Sacramento, Calif.-based manufacturer Atlantis Energy Systems, says he hasn’t heard any buzz about DIY solar. “At some point down the line maybe they’ll be a threat to installers, but that’s a ways off,” he says.

Morrissey points out that SolarPods still require customers to arrange an interconnection agreement with a local utility. “And for an individual to get permission from the utility is going to be quite difficult,” he says.

Erica Johnson, director of community relations for San Diego-based Sullivan Power, suggests other reasons DIY solar won’t be a big threat, though she worries about one bad, isolated installation hurting the market. “I think DIY has a potential to create a black eye for the industry,” Johnson says. “If someone gets hurt installing one, it could affect the public’s perceptions of everyone.

Vaidyanathan is not aiming to sell the SolarPod into any one specific market, but he believes the technology will be especially attractive to rural homeowners in areas that aren’t very grid-connected. Johnson and Morrissey concede his point.

And despite the critics, Vaidyanathan isn’t dissuaded. “I don’t have the competitive advantage now; we’ve only sold 100 so far,” he says. “But as my volume grows, [DIY solar] will become a big competitor to these companies. I’m essentially building a brick; you can use that brick to build a small wall, or to build a Great Wall of China. That’s what I’m aiming to do.”

(Photo: Ikewinski/Flickr)

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has 17 years of experience as a professional writer and journalist, working for three different newspapers as a reporter in Wilmington, N.C.; Glens Falls, N.Y.; and Daytona Beach, Fla. Michael has been writing and reporting for ThomasNet News since August 2011 on a broad range of topics, including renewable energy, manufacturing education, federal cleantech policy, and green chemistry. Michael was an editor at SLAM magazine, and has freelanced for Maxim, CNN.com, TennisWeek, and Country Club Quarterly.