Home builders switch on the 'invisible' solar panels

Moving to central California? You'll be able to buy a solar-powered home that doesn't look like it's from the set of Mad Max.

Now that solar panels aren't the ugly ducklings of architecture, home developers are touting solar energy as the latest feature in new homes.

Twelve developers in California have kicked off plans in recent weeks to integrate solar tiles from PowerLight into hundreds of new homes over the next few years. PowerLight's SunTile solar tiles are integrated into the roof, making them far less obtrusive than conventional solar panels, which are perched in a frame that sits atop a roof.

One of those California developers, Grupe Homes, has begun to sell homes equipped with PowerLight's SunTiles in its Carsten Crossings development in Rocklin, Calif. In less than three months, the company has sold 23 of the 30 green homes it has offered for sale. Those homes also include energy-efficient water heaters and heating systems.

"There is a lot of showing off. They invite their friends over and say 'Look at my house,'" said Grupe executive Mark Fischer. "One competitor tried to steal one of our buyers away by offering $30,000 off a home."

Centex Homes, meanwhile, has started to put similar systems in its Avignon homes in Pleasanton. Another developer, Lennar, will insert solar roof tiles into 450 homes going up in Roseville in the next two years.

State and federal subsidies, which total around $7,000 per home, play a significant part in the demand for solar. Some developers, such as Grupe, are also absorbing a significant portion of the extra costs of including solar and energy-efficiency technology because of the current buyer-favorable market.

Dark solar panels

Aesthetics, though, can't be ignored. Fischer said Grupe has contemplated solar for the past few years, but outside investors in the developments were typically lukewarm to the idea.

"It made it easier to sell to investors. Everybody is used to those solar arrays that sit on the roof. When they saw this, they were pleasantly surprised," Fisher said.

Bill Kelly, vice president of PowerLight's residential division, concurred: "It is a huge issue. When most people think of solar, they picture something that isn't attractive. That may be the biggest issue for builders."

The unusual design of the SunTile comes largely from SunPower, founded by Richard Swanson, a former Stanford University engineering professor. (SunPower makes the solar panels that PowerLight integrates into a roof tile.)

SunPower has invented a novel silicon solar panel that collects more energy per square inch than a standard silicon solar panel primarily because of the way the electrical contacts are inserted into the panel. SunPower's panels are also thinner.

In the end, that means that a SunPower-PowerLight tile system can harvest as much energy as a conventional system on a frame. The overall costs, however, are about the same.

"It makes for a panel that is a little more expensive to make because it is smaller, but it reduces the installation cost," Swanson said. "The whole area of new home construction is the new frontier for this field.

PowerLight has sold solar equipment into the commercial market for years but just started pitching its technology to residential builders a year ago. The first deals for residential homes were announced in late February.

The solar tiles aren't completely invisible and are slightly darker than conventional roof tiles. From a distance, it looks sort of like the roof got patched. Builders usually put the solar-activated tiles on the side and back of the house to further reduce any noticeable differences.

So, how much?
Getting a bottom-line figure on the cost or savings of these solar systems is difficult. Installing one of the roofing systems probably adds about $20,000 to $25,000 to the builder's direct costs, Kelly said. The state of California then gives builders a $4,000 to $6,000 rebate after installation, knocking the net additional cost down to $15,000 to $20,000.

Homeowners then get a $2,000 federal tax credit (which goes directly to the homeowner and not to the builder or developer), bringing the price down to $13,000 to $18,000.

Utility savings can range from $500 to $1,300. Payoff, thus, can be as short as 10 years or as long as 36 years. But math class hasn't ended yet. Utility prices continue to climb, so the payoff time will likely be shorter for many buyers because of the energy bill savings, Kelly said. The solar system also adds to the resale value of the house, he said.

The type and price of homes vary widely. In Pleasanton, the homes Centex builds will sell for more than $1 million and sport 3.5-kilowatt integrated solar systems. These systems will provide about 65 percent to 70 percent of the home's electricity needs. At the other end of the spectrum, Victoria Homes will integrate solar roofs in hundreds of homes in a Victorville subdivision for first-time and middle-income buyers.

The effectiveness of solar systems varies by geography. Most of the developments announced so far are for subdivisions in the long, hot California central valley. Summer temperatures above 100 degrees are common (and often drive up air-conditioning bills.)

While California is the only state where builders have begun to adopt these tiles, deals are expected in New Jersey, Colorado and Arizona, which have passed alternative-energy incentives, according to Kelly.

Right now, buyers are benefiting because the full costs aren't being passed on, but that will likely change.

"We're not charging the full premium, but I expect that we will," said Grupe's Fischer. "In a few years, you will see this everywhere."

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