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Do-it-yourself solar panel kit aims to slow meter

Start-up Clarian Technologies is developing a plug-and-play kit that lets people install solar panels and plug them directly into a home electrical outlet.

In the world of solar power, there are panels small enough to charge a cell phone and bigger panels installed on a roof by professionals, but not much in between. Clarian Technologies is shooting for that space in the middle.

The Seattle-area start-up is developing a kit that lets you dip your toe into solar-generated electricity without having to pay the hefty cost of a full array.

Called the Sunfish, the product package is designed to let a homeowner install up to three solar panels and get them generating juice in about an hour. The cost: about $800, said company president Chad Maglaque. The goal is to have a product available in the spring of 2011.

Clarian is developing a mounting system with an embedded solar panel which can act as an awning. Clarian Technologies

"People are interested in solar but renewable energy is out of reach of the average homeowner when you have to pay $20,000 to $30,000 to start with," he said. "Because this is plug-and-play, the installation cost is much lower."

The kit will include one or three standard solar photovoltaic panels and a mounting system, which lets a person place panels on a shed roof, wall, or other structure. The output of three panels will max out around 600 watts, which is about the amount power a large appliance, such as a washing machine, consumes. So the set-up will only offset a portion of a home's electricity load.

The panels are wired to a power module plugged into a wall socket. That device, about the size of a point-and-shoot camera, feeds electricity from the panels into a home's wiring using an inverter that converts direct current from the panels into alternating current.

A third piece of equipment is a circuit monitor, which looks something like a thermostat, that ensures electricity flows into the home wiring without overloading any circuits, explained Maglaque. Having this piece, which communicates with the power module, means that a professional electrician is not needed, he said.

Typically, a net meter is needed for when many rooftop panels produce more electricity than a house is consuming, so the meter can run backwards. Maglaque said no net meter or utility agreement should be needed because a house will soak up a few panels' electricity most of the time.

In terms of safety approvals, the installation should not require a building inspector if the Sunfish equipment gains UL certification next year.

The circuit monitor also gathers solar data so a consumer can see how much electricity is being generated via a Web site, such as Google PowerMeter or Microsoft Hohm.

The technology should work with other on-site power systems, including wind turbines. The company submitted Sunfish to GE's Ecomagination smart-grid contest to fund good ideas to modernize the grid and appears to be well received.

Whether Clarian can manufacture the system, gain certification, and meet its projected price remains to be seen. But the concept of plug-and-play solar is appealing to people interested in solar power and handy enough to mount solar panels themselves.

The components of Clarian Technologies plug-and-play solar power set-up.
The components of Clarian Technologies plug-and-play solar power set-up.