Solar electricity – where is the bottleneck?

Funny things are happening in the world of photovoltaics. First there was a big investment boom in solar energy companies. Hooray! But then China started producing solar panels so cheaply that it drove a lot of US companies out of business. Boo! But wait… cheap solar panels are cheap solar panels wherever they happen to be made, so that’s good news, right? Good for the consumer, anyway. Now you can buy a cheap solar panel and stick it on your roof, and… wait. How would you do that? Do you just plug it in, or call up your electrician, or what?

All this drives home the point that the actual bottleneck is now in the installation. Homeowners aren’t yet seeing the benefit of those low prices. Fortunately there is plenty of action on that front, as described in this Reuters analysis: As solar panels eclipsed, installers in limelight.

SolarCity, which specializes in installation, offers packages like SolarLease, where they take care of everything and you just pay a lower bill. They’re taking a hefty cut, of course, but all you have to do is gesture at your roof and say “put it there.” It sounds like a winning strategy to me. Most of us aren’t willing to do a big capital outlay to fund a solar farm. But I bet a lot of folks will sign up for a low-hassle lease. We need large competent companies that specialize in doing exactly that. I hope SolarCity is such a company.

Change comes when the exotic becomes ordinary. Already hybrid cars like the Prius are nothing special. Yawn. And now friends of mine getting solar installations. Maybe next year it’ll be no big deal. Hooray for boring!

2 thoughts on “Solar electricity – where is the bottleneck?”

  1. Count me as one of the pioneers, Ned!

    My panels went live Jan 3rd and, every sunny day I’m checking the web portal to see how my roof is earning its keep. Even in these short days of winter, I’ve just passed my first megawatt in 50 days! More than half of my electricity will come from the roof.

    Short backstory. I’ve been pricing PV solar for over 2 years, but it was very expensive – about $45k to cover my roof back then (~5kW system). The prices came down slowly to about $25k a year ago, then something happened over the summer. We hit a tipping point of lower-priced, cheaper panels built in China (yay!), nice incentives from Obama, and a vibrant Solar Renewal Energy Credit (SREC) market that had utility companies competing to buy clean energy from the masses. But, what put it over the edge? Americans may not be able to compete in manufacturing, but what do we know how to make? Financial instruments!!! My deal? A pre-paid 20 year lease. $5000 one time. 7.2kW system. The solar sales and install company (Astrum) teams with the financial company (Constellation) to take advantage of the rebates, SRECs, etc etc. I don’t care. I get a 3 year payback and then free electricity for 17 years. The value of my house jumped by far more than I paid. And, then they gave me a rebate so my final cost was under $3500. I am now solar’s best salesman.

    Anyone with a south-facing unencumbered roof would be a fool not to look into it.

  2. I am signed up also. I would not say my installers are ‘competent’, but they are close enough. The whole process is heavily subsidized here in the People’s Republick Of Mass. That is the only thing making it financially viable for me here. For me, it is purely a financial decision. From what I understand, it is 6 months of bureaucratic nightmares and three days of guys on your roof.

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