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Shining a light on solar-power costs

Solar systems don't come cheap, so HelioVolt is teaming with Exceltech to cut back on the installation costs.

Solar technology specialist HelioVolt is teaming up with Exeltech to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to the proliferation of solar power: manual labor.

The companies plan to develop modular solar panels and other products to reduce the costs involved in installing solar energy systems. Some of the products will be solar panels that can be integrated into the conventional solar panel frames, while others will be construction materials that have energy-generating technology built in--roof tiles with integrated solar cells, for example.

Installation is one of the major problems with solar energy. The electricity generated by solar panels is free, but solar systems are not: typically it takes about eight years of free electricity before a consumer breaks even. The solar industry wants to reduce the break-even point to about four years.

The industry spends millions in R&D every year to come up with solar cells that can convert more of the sun's energy into electricity or reduce the cost of producing solar cells.

These systems, however, mostly get installed the old-fashioned way: contractors hoist panels onto the roof and drill and screw them into place. About half of the cost of a solar system goes to the inverter (a device that converts the direct current from the solar panel into alternating current) and to installation, said John Langdon, vice president of marketing at HelioVolt. Installation can even take up half of the budget.

The new products "will reduce the cost of the inverter and the install," he said. "It makes it easier to install."

Some companies have already begun moving in that direction. Late last year, , bought PowerLight, which makes a roof tile with embedded solar cells. Right now, the PowerLight solar roof tiles cost more than regular solar power systems, but the installation is less and it gets absorbed into the price of a new home. A few developers in California have started putting the tiles into new homes. The roof tile systems are also less obtrusive than the more conventional solar frames.

HelioVolt specializes in CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) solar cells. CIGS is not as efficient as silicon for converting sunlight to electricity, but the solar cells and panels that use it are expected to cost less because the active CIGS ingredients can be sprayed onto polymer sheets or incorporated into window coatings or cement. Silicon solar panels emerge from a complex manufacturing process that's similar to the one used to make computer chips.

The catch? No one mass-produces CIGS yet. Miasole is expected to announce production later this year, according to Dave Edwards, an analyst at ThinkEquity Partners. HelioVolt won't mass- produce CIGS cells until 2008.