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Summary:

Why can’t there be a solar panel rooftop system that works as easily as your TV: no professional installation, no permits, just plug it in and start it up?

Solar PV shade made by the Fraunhofer researchers

Solar PV shade made by the Fraunhofer researchers

Why can’t there be a solar panel rooftop system that works as easily as your TV: no professional installation, no permits, just plug it in and start it up? That was a question that Ramamoorthy Ramesh, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, posed in his remarks at one of the largest solar conferences in the U.S., Intersolar, last week. “My 12-year-old kid can install my TV,” said Ramesh, suggesting how easy such a ready-to-go solar system could be.

The potential benefits from plug-n-play solar could be a massive game changer for the solar industry. Solar panels only make up 20 percent of the price of the entire rooftop system and the rest comes from other components, sales, marketing, permits and labor. If there was a solar product that removed some of these costs — like permits and labor — the entire cost of the product could drop dramatically. Such a system could be sold at a big box retailer, like Home Depot or even Best Buy, and be more accessible to the average consumer.

Well, that’s the idea anyway. The hurdles to such systems are sizable. Skimming through a workshop that the SunShot program put on earlier this year on the subject reveal some of the more obvious problems facing plug-and-play solar, including: safety concerns around installing an electrical system on a rooftop; the question of how do people make sure the solar panels are placed in the right way to maximize the sun exposure; the fact that many solar panels are too heavy for an average individual person to lift onto a roof; and the issue that current solar panels need specialized tools that many people don’t have.

Solar window tech from GCL

But the SunShot program wants to invest a little bit of money into thinking about ways around some of these problems, no matter how outside of the box that is. The program has pledged $25 million over five years to go into helping a plug-and-play solar system make it to commercialization. “We’re expecting teams of young people to forget everything they know about glass and photovoltaics,” and create “a totally new way of making solar panels that can be plug and play,” said Ramesh at Intersolar. The SunShot program explains the potential product as:

An off-the-shelf product that is fully inclusive with little need for individual customization. Homeowners can install the system without special training or tools. The homeowner simply plugs the system into a PV-ready circuit and an automatic PV discovery process initiates communication between the system and the utility.

SoloPower’s solar panel booth

Plug-and-play solar isn’t a new idea. Some companies have already been trying to commercialize such systems. A company called Veranda Solar was trying to be the Apple of solar, but doesn’t seem to be around any longer. Armageddon Energy makes a solar system in a box called the SolarClover. A company called Clarian Power has also developed a plug-in solar box.

During the SunShot program’s brainstorming session, participants suggested some solutions such as:

  • Have houses be solar ready: Develop a standard PV plug at the utility meter. Change the National Electrical Code. Have houses get smart solar-ready circuit breakers.
  • Use polymers and new materials that don’t need roof penetrations or specialized tools. Can a solar system fit over a roof like a bed sheet?
  • Panels that are very light can avoid some of these issues. Spray on paint photovoltaics?
  • Add GPS to panels to help them self-locate for best sun generation placement.
  1. 1. Maximizing solar exposure shouldn’t be that hard. One could lay down a grid of “monitoring” devices (like a blanket) that would analyze sun exposure over a several day period and then make recommendations on location based on what it “experiences.”
    2. It also seems a fairly simple matter to create smaller lego-like solar panels, rather than large solar panels. These could easily interlock and while the number carried up would be more numerous they could be safely moved by an individual.
    3. Custom tools also seems like a silly obstacle. Either the tools could be included with the kit or they could use more standard tool interfaces.
    But I think the most important thing is that it doesn’t need to be something every mom and pop can do – it just needs to be something someone without specialization can do – e.g. your average handyman or handy homeowner. An industry will spring up around it with low-cost labor.

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  2. Christopher Miles Tuesday, July 17, 2012

    Saw something like this over at Technology Review. Trina and Solon are making panels which arrive from the factory with connecting/mounting assemblies already in place.

    I think the plug and play idea has a lot of merit- although the utility piece still isn’t clear – “The homeowner simply plugs the system into a PV-ready circuit and an automatic PV discovery process initiates communication between the system and the utility” That’s the part that will still need an electrician or visit from the Utility. (unless someone is building housing with those sorts of connections already)

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    1. Christopher Miles Tuesday, July 17, 2012

      Here is the Technology review piece- New design of modules seem like a no-brainer to install.

      http://www.technologyreview.com/news/428423/new-solar-panel-designs-make-installation-cheaper/

      Chris Miles
      http://work-bench.org

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  3. IKEA should start working on this…

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  4. Solar proponents often get lost in the race for efficiency. In an idea world, having the most efficient solar cell placed with the most exposure to the sun is desirable, but we don’t live in that world. If you could go buy cheap solar panels that weren’t very efficient and place them without concern for ideal exposure there would be a huge amount of deployments. Any given deployment might be tiny in terms of watts, but if millions of people installed even 100 watts of solar think of what that would mean in aggregate.

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  5. Regarding Clarian. Back in the “day” (mid ’90s) when the first round of microinverters came out there was a bit of a groundswell of DIYer’s putting in small “guerrilla solar” systems just by, well, hanging them up in the sun and plugging them into the wall. However this violates a whole slew of codes and standards not to mention you can’t hook any kind of generator up to the utility without their approval. Thus while this was widely publicized in geek rags like “Home Power” magazine the pictures accompanying the “how-to” articles featured people wearing baklava masks. Because it was illegal, and maybe not so safe. Still is. Thus, the following buried at the bottom of Clarian’s web site:

    “Availability
    The SmartBox Solar Module is not yet available for purchase and still in development as we work to ensure that it is compliant with all applicable safety and regulatory requirements. “

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  6. We have developed a Plug N Play (nearly 1 kW) that is modular in construction. Installs in less than 2 hrs. There are installations in MN, WI, PA and NE. Our product is called SolarPod. Our mission is low cost, simple technology, highest performance (our systems beats fixed tilt systems by at least 15 to 30%) and low overhead so we can be less volatile to the boom and bust cycles of rebates. We have both grid tied and off grid Plug N Play which is modular as well.

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  7. Harold Y. Tan Thursday, July 26, 2012

    GoGreenSolar.com has a 195W plug and play solar panel called the SunPlug. Easy to setup and installs in minutes. Scalable up to 8 panels.

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  8. I think this is a great idea but it needs an override so that in the case of a power outage you can throw the main breaker isolate the home and use the panels for emergency use too. Sure it takes a little care to be safe for power workers but surely the software could be upgraded to detect an isolated circuit vs one attached to a network, as soon as the network is down and severed the panels go back on line.

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