Local company launches new product that could be important part of solar energy's future

Dec 6, 2012

It’s a cold morning in Flagstaff and the sun is still low in the winter sky.

Business partners Ryan Holtz and Jim Corning have positioned a photovoltaic panel to face southeast.

When they plug it in, a digital monitor starts measuring the amount of energy being produced by the sun.

“Wow. 159 watts, 160, cool,” says Jim Corning, a partner in Plug and Play Solar Kits of Arizona. “Now, we’re out from behind the cloud a little more. 178. Part of the fun is messing around with these things and getting them pointed right and seeing the output.”

Jim Corning, left, Ryan Holtz and Joanna Tepley, here with her daughter Ella, recently launched a company that sells ready-to-use solar panels.
Credit Shelley Smithson

The company this month began selling solar panels that can be set up and producing electricity within minutes. 

A small converter on each panel changes direct current electricity from the solar panels to alternating current.

And a transformer then steps the voltage down to 120 volts.

Holtz says that allows the panel to be plugged into a standard outdoor outlet.

“It’s essentially an appliance, just like any other appliance in your home that you would plug into an outlet, except that it produces power instead of using power,” Holtz says.   

The company is hoping its ready-to-use solar panel will be attractive to consumers who can’t afford to install a large solar array.

They also plan to market to renters who aren’t allowed to put panels on their roofs. 

“Our target audience is the young professional who wants to be part of a movement to be greener that has been priced out of the solar market,” says chief finance officer Joanna Tepley. “They don’t have $15,000 or $20,000 or $30,000 to put a unit in their home.”

Corning believes plug and play solar panels will be the future of the solar industry.

Min Lee is the director of the Department of Energy’s solar program, and he agrees.

He says the hardware costs of solar have declined dramatically. The biggest expense now is labor and regulatory costs.

“It really can take nine months to install solar on a home,” Lee says. “Now imagine being able to do that in minutes.”

The Energy Department’s goal is for solar technology to become so easy and safe that do-it-yourselfers could go to a local hardware store and install a solar array on their roofs in an afternoon.

That possibility has created some anxiety among traditional solar installers.

They worry plug and play could cut into their business.

But Lee says that fear is short-sighted.

For one thing, he says most people don’t want to get on their roofs to install solar.

“If we can enable technology to make it easier for installers to install solar, they can install at a lower cost, so there will be greater demand,” he says. “Imagine how many more systems an installer can install every week if he didn’t have to stand in front of city hall in line, submitting paperwork for permits.”

Those permits and agreements with utilities are meant to ensure fire code compliance and safety for utility workers.

The Energy Department dedicated $5 million this year to help develop plug-and-play solar technology.

And it plans to ask Congress for another $20 million over the next four years.

Plug and Play’s Ryan Holtz estimates that each of their panels will produce about 5 percent of the average home’s electricity.

And he says up to six can be plugged into each other. 

The panels retail for a little over $1,100 but locals can get a $150 shipping discount.

With a 30 percent federal rebate, that means it would take about 10 years for consumers to recoup their investment.

Stephen Smith is a renewable energy consultant in California.

He says the plug and play model could lead to far more small businesses and homes installing solar in the next eight years. And that could create jobs.  

“It could provide a huge level of manufacturing jobs in the United States to provide products that are utilized in plug and play products,” Smith says.

Min Lee at the Energy Department believes plug and play will help bring the cost of solar down to seven cents per kilowatt hour.

That’s about 2.5 cents less than Arizonans now pay for electricity.