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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Akeena advances retail PV

Located in a former car Los Gatos dealership a few miles from my home, Akeena Solar has been after me to attend their solar panel sales pitch to find out why I want them on my roof. (They used to host their seminars at our local wine bar, and I regret not signing up for one of those). I had not realized the company is public, with a thinly traded stock and a net profit margin of nearly -60%.

Still, its announcement Thursday of a do-it-yourself solar panel is a revolutionary (if inevitable) breakthrough for the industry. (The stock got a nice one-day bump — I’ll be curious to hear if insiders dumped their shares.) Oddly, the home page and branding have not been update to reflect the do-it-yourself message.

The Akeena Andalay panels will be available from 21 California locations of the Lowe’s big box home improvement stores. No word on whether this will spread to other locations in the Southwest, where the insolation is similarly favorable.

The product is a clever design, with a built-in micro-inverter that simplifies system design and installation. If nothing else, for the homeowner it means less time on the roof to fall off. (My wife's cousin fell off a roof doing a repair, was paralyzed, and never recovered.)

A Seeking Alpha reader notes that the system is likely a Suntech panel with an added micro-inverter. Another reader notes that the decision of BP to sell through Home Depot caused installers to drop it like a stone.

At a retail price of $893, that’s $5.10 per peak watt — not great, not bad. But having this go from a custom-installed product to a mass market one is an essential step to making PV widely used across California if not the rest of the world.

The more serious limitation is that the installation cost breakthrough does nothing to solve the ugly permitting problems facing the industry — a confusing welter of local requirements and bureaucratic obstacles. While a DIY-er can install a toilet or do other minor home improvements without a permit (perhaps under the radar), utilities won’t allow grid connection without a permit, obviating much of the benefit of the DIY approach. SolarTech hopes to solve the permitting problem in California, but any solution is years away.

Perhaps the availability of the DIY panels will cause a wave of grass roots activism and even civil disobedience to force municipalities to clean up their act. I could see homeowner-activists in Berkeley, SF or Santa Cruz pushing city hall to stop being such an obstacle for those who want to do the right thing. (I specifically exclude Palo Alto, since most of them are more concerned with their property values than anything else.)

Even so, there’s little to suggest that Akeena will be the beneficiary of any eventual shift to easier installation, approval and grid connection. Pioneers, alas, rarely are.

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