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Solar in a Box
Sarah Rich, 6 Apr 07
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Despite good intentions and high ideals, we are all prone to inertia when it comes to breaking out of old habits. Unless the alternative brings personal benefit and added convenience, we're likely to stick with what we know. This is part of the obstacle to widespread adoption of renewable energy, given that paying the energy company and flipping a switch is the easiest and most familiar way to bring power inside. Companies who give customers the option to funnel their money towards renewables manage to provide that alternative without asking for a change of behavior, but getting on-site renewable energy requires a great deal more effort.

A few companies have begun addressing this problem by developing systems which subtract the burden and learning curve from the equation, leaving the consumer with nothing but the desired end result. A few months ago we mentioned Citizenre, a service that rents, delivers, installs, repairs and removes solar panels for homeowners. More recently we learned about ReadySolar's "Solar in a Box" -- a user-friendly prefab system that makes residential solar easy.

Like prefab houses, the idea here is to provide a customizable system that can be delivered to a building or renovation site and installed easily. It's not exactly DIY -- the panels still need to be installed by a roofer and an electrician -- but the idea is to maximize incentive by minimizing the steps required to give up some conventional energy sources for some power from the sun.

If nothing else, Solar in a Box proves the marketing appeal of language that suggests ease. There's something satisfying and safe about a product whose parts can all be contained and transported in a single compartment and assembled with a sheet of illustrated instructions...This must be why everyone likes IKEA so much. We've written here about Disaster Relief in a Box, Revolution in a Box, NGO in a Box, and now this. Maybe one of these days IKEA will add an aisle of boxes full of prefab solar.

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Comments

Careful where you lend out this blog's credibility. Citizenre has been outed as a scam, and should not be included in a round-up of serious ventures.


Posted by: myles on 6 Apr 07

Perhaps not a scam, but I can't get the numbers to work, nor have I ever seen information about this product that passes a straight-faced test. When we speak of "breaking out of old habits," perhaps that should include uncritical acceptance of something because it sounds good or fits a preconceived narrative. We really need to focus on what actually works when we run the numbers - we don't have the time or luxury for dalliances with things that try to appeal to the gut while bypassing the critical faculties.


Posted by: David Foley on 6 Apr 07

Guilty as charged on the uncritical acceptance part...I'd love to see some concrete proof that it isn't real, but I concede that I don't have concrete proof that it is...However, if CitizenRe is not doing what they say, someone should! A service design system for solar is a good idea.


Posted by: Sarah on 6 Apr 07

Citizenre's "outing" was outed as a FUD (fear-uncertainty-doubt) tactic led by competitors in the solar installer market--an effort to "strangle the baby with its umbilical cord." The only people taking a calculated risk of time and money are independent sales reps like myself.

The market is big enough for serious ventures like Citizenre and Ready Solar. Because they are not ready to ship until 2008, Citizenre recommends that well-heeled prospects buy, rather than rent, solar panels from existing NABCEP (certified) solar installers--and even refers prospects to a solar installer search engine.


Posted by: Tony Cecala on 6 Apr 07

Tony, I hope to express this respectfully: when I've looked into the Citizenre product, I could not see how it would produce a significant amount of energy, nor could I see how the price wasn't very high, compared to similar components and installations. I make my living designing "Green" buildings, I've been involved in dozens of alternate energy installations, and I really try to champion products like this. I have no fiduciary interest in a competitor, nor any other potential conflict of interest that I'm aware of. I do have a strong allegiance to empiricism- but I've run numbers and been wrong many, many times. Could you help us understand: what is this product, what is its estimated energy production in several different locations, what is its actual installed cost, what is its expected service life, and what warranty comes with it? I have no axe to grind - honest. I just haven't seen numbers that convince me, and I'd love nothing better than to be proven wrong.


Posted by: David Foley on 6 Apr 07

Hats off to David Foley for calling Bullshit on pie in the sky. I would go another way with the critique of this capitalist happy think of problems with consumer acceptance -- oh please! Businesses only thrive in a market. Markets are driven by winners and losers. The shift to green energy -- solar, wind etc... will be driven by government spending and big tax increases on the rich if I have anything to say about it. The people who benefit from quiet, calm streets the most should pay the most.

We need a government program for massive investment in solar and alternative energy for ten years to see if we can avoid having to build nukes.

There are working class and middle class jobs in that work-- and there ought to be mandates to get x kilowatts online from alternative fuels by real deadlines.

The reason we need the massive investments in government funding is because the people who are getting hardest hit by climate crisis are the poorest. And there isn't a "market" for them coming up fast enough.

Or shall we tell the good people in Uganda -- you can inherit the wind?

Basta.

Timothy


Posted by: Tim Colman on 6 Apr 07

Tony,

Perhaps you should disclose your relationship with Citizenre as a Citizenre "Ecopreneur". Citizenre's "outing" was not FUD by competitors - there have been many critics. Citizenre has not shown one bit of proof that the company and its claims are real - no product, no CEC certification, no UL certification, no investors, no plant, no credible delivery promises for customers, etc. Where is the much promised "press release"? It seems like every two or three weeks there is a newly delayed date promised.

Just as importantly, Citizenre's claims about having installed costs per watt at $4.47 initially (at 100 MW capacity) and $1.57 (at 500 MW capacity) are completely unsubstantiated BS. Both Baoding Yingli New Energy Resources Co. Ltd. and Suntech Power, Inc. have already implemented an integrated photovoltaic wafer - cell - module manufacturing business model. Yingli has 100+ MW of capacity (expanding every month) with a goal to have 600 MW operating by the end of next year. Suntech has 380 MW of capacity and will reach 500 MW next year. Their polycrystalline technology is substantially similar to what Citizenre claims to be planning to install and their Chinese labor rates are substantially lower (container shipping is about 5 cents per watt; 100KW per container). Their manufacturing costs, while lower than many competitors, are still above $2 per watt, and their panels are available in megawatt quantities in the $3.40 to $3.60 per watt range. Inverters from Fronius or Kaco are in the $0.40 to $0.55 per watt range (assuming maximum usage - e.g. 6000 watts of panels for an inverter rated at 6000 watts). The panels and inverters alone will cost roughly $4 per watt when purchased in megawatt volumes. The monitoring / metering boxes cost about $400 when bought under large volume contracts - for a home system that is another $0.08 to $0.12 per watt (5000 watt home system). You still have installation costs, shipping costs from a national warehouse to the local installer, cabling, racks (if required), grounding, building permit, maintenance, sales, marketing, and overhead costs. The bottom line is the numbers don't add up and no one from Citizenre has released any data that can be audited or independently verified that states otherwise.

Richard


Posted by: Dr. Richard George on 6 Apr 07

David,

Thanks for the respectful question. I appreciate your interest in an empirical answer. Citizenre's business model centers around making the Renewable Energy Unit (REnU) with PV panels manufactured from solar grade silicon. The system components are engineered to work together, not over-engineered to handle various configurations & manufacturers. This vertical integration, and the economies of scale (100,000 annual panels) makes it possible for Citizenre to build systems less expensively than other manufacturers. When you consider that a PV panel is a semiconductor subject to Moore's Law, an additional profit component emerges long-term. The company is funded via debt equity and has secured $650 million.

Energy production: the REnU produces the power of any standard PV system sized from 2 kWp to 10 kWp operating in the US with 4 to 6 Equivalent Sun Hours.

The installed cost to the company is substantial, yet the homeowner rental fee provides an income stream that pays for the panels well within their 30-year life-span. Marketing costs are fixed at 16% (sales commissions), and the installation is done via franchisees. Also, the panel's ownership remains with the company, if the contract is cancelled this valuable asset is simply recovered.

For the homeowner, renting a system is like renting a car: both are metered (miles or kilowatt-hours). Both insulate the customer from technology maintenance and upkeep: if a rental car breaks down it's simply replaced, if the REnU system has a problem, it's fixed at no cost. It's in Citizenre's interest to keep the system working because the customer is charged by the power they produce. The rental rate is matched to the local utility's average rate, and remains flat over the rental contract. Which is an attractive option compared to non-renewable energy bills that grow ever more costly due to pollution and availability issues.

For a detailed technical Q&A on these issues with Dr. Rob Wills, CTO of Citizenre, see my blog at: http://tinyurl.com/2asf8l

Best,
Tony


Posted by: Tony Cecala on 6 Apr 07

I wrote one of the articles highlighting CitizenRE's problems and challenges. I've never received a response to questions asked, only restatements of the same information. My original article is at http://www.renewableenergyaccess.com/rea/news/story?id=47419

Regarding the $650 million of debt that Tony notes above, according to inside company sources it has not been secured. CitizenRE has recently announced that they will soon make an announcement about when they will announce where their plant will be built. I hope you see the continuing chain of, if not deception, false promises. CitizenRE has no plant, no products, no time-line, little senior management, (at least 3 of the top five people are part time consultants), no installation crews. In short, they have nothing but marketing hype and unpaid "EcoPreneurs".

Yes, I am in the solar industry; my company is one of the largest residential dealers outside of CA and NJ, and distributes products and systems nationally. And you could say I'm just protecting my company and am scared of innovation, but you'd be wrong. We're working hard to make solar succeed, not be side-tracked by a non-performing company that stalls PV development by promising something that is not real. We're busy installing real systems for homeowners every day. And our systems, while not called "...in a box", are very simple for homeowners to obtain.

Promoting an option that is not available is damaging to any industry, as it confuses the public, slowing the purchase decision for real options, and casting doubt over the veracity of existing real companies. That is why CitizenRE is bad for the industry.

We've got enough real options today to fight global warming. Let's use those, and stop wishing for a silver bullet.

Jeff Wolfe, CEO, groSolar www.groSolar.com


Posted by: Jeff Wolfe on 7 Apr 07

Tony, I don't doubt your sincerity or enthusiasm, but Citizenre is making very lofty claims with very flimsy evidence. Dr. Richard George expresses my doubts well. I'll refrain from the BS word, and from political rants, but I still don't see anything passing the straight-face test. This recent article from Wired magazine lays out the case for and against Citizenre. The company's management is promising to do something that 25 years of experience tells me will be virtually impossible to pull off. Like everyone else, I'm fallible, so if the company fulfills its promises in 2008, I'll be the first to cheer. Meanwhile, I remember, in the 1980's, seeing the active solar industry nearly destroyed by overblown promises and sleazy or incompetent vendors and installers. So please understand why some of us remain skeptical. Until there's an actual demonstration of a tangible product, and an actual track record of installations, performance, maintenance and honoring of warranties, I must remain a doubter. I sincerely hope that you folks prove me wrong.


Posted by: David Foley on 7 Apr 07

David,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your reasonable doubt is certainly understandable.

I've done my due diligence and handled my doubts. Impressed with the calibre and integrity of Citizenre's senior management, I've set out to build and train an independent sales team for this "virtually impossible" project.

I believe the emergent market for solar energy dwarfs the current capacity of all the players. As Dr. Rob Wills states, "There will be plenty of work for all of us. Solar Energy is abundant." ReadySolar, groSolar, and Citizenre share a vision -- to bring solar mainstream. Each differs in execution, scope, and focus. Isn't that the beauty of free markets?

We hope to win your support by doing what we set out to do with integrity. I'm certain that we will do good work for the industry, and the planet.

Best,
Tony


Posted by: Tony Cecala on 8 Apr 07

While I agree with parts of all the comments, most important to us all should be to install as much solar as we can in our life time and pass on a little better planet. If renting or owning solar is the choice Americans have, they can like leasing or buying an automobile make that decision. Unfortunately the option isn’t available TODAY only speculated on and I do agree current customers are confused instead of encouraged to take action. Solar has real value, will only appreciate and should be promoted and implemented now. Our country can use the power today and we can install it TODAY, let’s encourage and grow business that are in place and add real assets and value to American homes TODAY. Financing these systems is easy, EEM, re-financing, equity loans all our viable alternatives and all have great taxes advantages, plus owning a system allows for home and business owners to take FED tax credits that are available TODAY and in the end you own your energy generating system!

Mark Bauer, Michigan


Posted by: Mark on 13 Apr 07

It's worth noting (Tim C, especially) that despite the excursion into the merits or otherwise of Citizenre, there is a serious, private-capital-funded business sector in thin-film solar. Government is on the margins, here, and while there may be good arguments for schemes to assist consumer adoption, there's not much need for production or technology subsidies.

The Holy grail here is $USD0.50/watt - roughly 10% of current rigid-silicon costs. There's a good directory at http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Thin_Film_Solar.

Because the technology uses roll-to-roll manufacturing techniques (think of a newspaper press producing solar panels), most of the players (Heliovolt, Miasole, Nanosolar, Konarka - and others) are talking about gigawatts of installed panel over the next couple of years.

I'm excited about this, frankly. Energy independence using proven, existing, commercialised technology is pretty much here, the way I read this stuff.

So I wouldn't be expending energy on the antics of the inevitable scammers or too-early adopters. Watch the big guys with actual production lines. They're serious. And they're here now.


Posted by: seagullz on 17 Apr 07



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