Technology innovator Elon Musk has taken a step that may provide a boost to the still-developing solar energy industry.
Musk – whose most notable venture is the Tesla car company – has unveiled a new battery backup system for the home. What makes this system different is that it can be powered by solar energy or conventional fuel sources, or both for that matter.
Called the Powerwall, the collection of lithium-ion battery modules will store electricity generated from solar panels, the provide energy when the sun goes down. Or if connected to the grid, the batteies can charge during non-peak hours when electricity is less expensive, then provide power to the home at times when the utility charges a premium rate.
The Powerwall can also replace the backup generators that provide power during outages caused by storms or other disasters.
The powerwall will come in 7 and 10 kilowatt-hour sizes and will retail for around $3,500. But if you want the get full value from one of these systems in your home, you'll need a set of solar panels to collect energy.
From sunlight to electricity
The sun's energy is converted into electric energy using photovoltaic (PV) cells – the dark material you see in large solar panels. According to NASA, some materials exhibit a property known as the photoelectric effect that causes them to absorb photons of light and release electrons. When these free electrons are captured, an electric current results and that can be turned into electric current.
It may seem like modern technology but solar cells have actually been around for a long time. The process was discovered in 1839. Early in the 20th century Albert Einstein described the nature of light and the photoelectric effect on which photovoltaic technology is based, helping him win a Nobel prize in physics. The first photovoltaic module was built by Bell Laboratories in 1954.
The process has advanced over the decades, getting a big boost from the U.S. space program, which used solar panels to provide electricity for orbiting space craft and satellites.
When you electrically connect a number of solar cells to one another and mount them in a support structure, you get what is known as a photovoltaic module, which can produce electricity at a certain voltage, depending on how much light hits it.
When several modules are linked together and placed in a series of frames, it becomes a solar array. That's what you see on residential rooftops.
Currently it is estimated only about 600,000 U.S. homes are equipped with solar systems, but there are plenty of companies – 5 in particular – ready and willing to install one for you.
San Francisco-based Dividend Solar was founded in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and in many ways that event shaped the firm from the start. At the time the founders were working at Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch – one firm that went bankrupt and one that very nearly did.
The lesson they took away from that economic catastrophe was how misaligned interests between stakeholders can create negative economic and social outcomes.
“With that in mind, and recognizing the vast opportunity represented by distributed energy, Dividend Solar was formed,” the company says on its website.
A big part of Dividend Solar's approach lies in financing. It not only provides the product to consumers but offers a means to pay for it.
Last September Dividend Solar launched a full-service solar loan platform that offers qualified homeowners a $0 down payment loan option, along with energy production guarantees, system warranties and performance monitoring.
"The solar financing market is remarkably mispriced," Steve Michella, CEO and co-founder of Dividend Solar said at the time of the launch. "We're looking to maximize the economic benefits for both homeowners and investors, and make solar an investment – not just another monthly expense."
The direct lending platform is called the “EmpowerPortal.” On one end investors looking for attractive yields on their money can make attractive investments in large-scale residential solar. The portal pairs up these investors with individual homeowners who want to add solar as a home energy source.
The company says the solar loans are secured by stable, energy-producing assets and backed by creditworthy homeowners, quality-driven installers and top-tier equipment.
"Our model benefits every member of the solar value chain – homeowners, investors and installers – all while furthering the adoption of clean, renewable energy," said Eric White, President and Co-Founder of Dividend Solar.
In fact, reducing upfront costs for the consumer has become a standard part of just about every provider's business model. The reason is simple; if a consumer had to pay thousands of dollars upfront in order to save $80 or so each month on their electric bill, that would be an extremely hard sell.
Different providers have different plans but they can include $0 down purchase; $0 down lease; Power Purchase Agreements (PPA), where the provider owns the equipment but sells the electricity to the homeowner; and a low down payment plan.
Of course, if you would like to pay in full up front, nearly all providers will be happy to accommodate you. The U.S. government also provides a tax credit on qualified solar installations, allowing a homeowner paying in full to recoup some of the expense.
Vivint Solar is currently operating in California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Washington D.C. Like Dividend, it has a way for customers to get a system installed on their homes without upfront cost.
That's because the company owns, installs and maintains the solar panels. The homeowner agrees to purchase the solar energy the system produces. However, the rate for electricity is significantly lower than what an electric utility charges.
Homeowners may also lease a system from Vivint, paying a fixed fee keyed to the system's expected energy output. The lease agreement offers a protection to the homeowner so that the company pays them if the leased system fails to meet a guaranteed energy production level.
Vivint Solar says its customers pay up to 30% less each month for electric power. With no upfront costs, it says consumers can pocket the savings from Day One.
The company markets its products, in part, through door-to-door sales. According to several consumers posting reviews at ConsumerAffairs, the sales presentations win high praise – sometimes the reviews of the installations don't.
Like it's competitors, Verengo has developed ways to reduce the costs and offers installation options with no upfront cost from the homeowner.
“People have the conception that solar is expensive, and maybe too expensive for them,” said Ken Button, Verengo Solar Plus President. “A lot of what we do is provide different financing methods so that we have a way for anyone to go with solar.”
The company offers 3 price options in California and New York. There is a $0 down option, which carries an inflation payment increase ranging from 1.5% to 2.9%.
There is a low down payment option – ranging from $250 to $5,000 – that gives homeowners the option to lock in the monthly electric rate.
The fully prepaid option carries a larger out-of-pocket expense but lets homeowners prepay for power for up to 25 years. The company also says that option delivers the highest reduction in electric bills.
Verengo installs equipment produced by 5 primary suppliers; Hyundai Solar, Rene Solar, Trina Solar, Yingli and LG. Verengo says Hyundai Solar is its premier solar panel partner. They are the largest and one of the oldest PV cell and module manufacturers, a division of Hyundai Heavy Industries.
The company makes a point of telling prospective customers it uses its own employees to install residential systems, not independent contractors – a persistent source of complaints within the industry. Verengo says it installs its systems within 1 to 2 days.
SolarCity is one of America's largest solar power providers and has been around since 2006.
It serves customers in 17 states, plus Washington D.C., with over 45 operations centers. In addition to residential customers, SolarCity provides solar installations to more than 400 schools, government agencies and well known major corporations.
It also offers a number of financing plans, including both a $0 down purchase and a lease.
SolarCity has already announced plans to incorporate Tesla's Powerwall home battery into its system. The fully-installed system stores electricity generated from the home's solar power system, using that power to automatically provide backup power during utility grid outages.
SolarCity’s battery backup service replaces natural gas generators with zero-emission storage technology. The turnkey battery backup service includes permitting, installation and ongoing monitoring.
“The combination of solar power generation and battery storage will make the utility grid safer and less susceptible to service interruptions, and will also lower the cost to expand and maintain the grid,” the company said in a release. “SolarCity’s energy storage rollout supports efforts already underway in multiple states to integrate aggregated storage capacity with existing grid resources.”
SolarCity began taking orders for the system late last week and said it would begin installation by October.
Sungevity is a solar energy provider based in Oakland, Calif., but doing business in the Netherlands and Australia as well. It offers customers the ability to get into solar energy without upfront costs through a lease option, introduced in 2010.
If aesthetics are an overriding concern, Sungevity took steps last year to address that for its prospects in Southern California and the Bay Area. Its Instant iQuote system taps into 3-D models of individual homes throughout those areas, showing how the houses will look with different arrays installed.
The company also has proprietary software to design solar panel installations for individual homes.
Sungevity and European battery maker Sonnenbatterie scooped Elon Musk's announcement by a few days, announcing in late April a battery partnership of their own. Sungevity will offer Sonnenbatterie's energy storage systems to its network of customers in the U.S. and Europe starting in the second half of this year.
The firms say customers who participate in the program will consume more of their own solar energy, enjoy reduced costs and have access to backup power during outages.