Solar Panels for Soccer Moms0

Noelle dEstries | Mon Sep 12 2011

Your mom just purchased Grape Solar’s 880 Watt Expandable Grid-Tied Solar Kit and now she’s bragging to all her friends. She tells them about the four Enphase Micro Inverters and how they should take advantage of the incentive programs. Next thing you know, she’s talking trash to the meter man about how he’ll be paying her in a few months.

This is what solar companies like Grape are hoping to achieve: a market buzz due to mainstream accessibility, with products so easy and economical even your mom is buying.

Oregon-based company Grape Solar is selling solar products through Costco’s website, with customers having the choices of 880W, 2300W, 3680W or 5060W ready-to-install kits. Prices range from around $3,600 upwards to $18,000, with an emphasis that kits can be DIY or installed by a local professional. Grape’s goal is to make solar power systems accessible and economical to the average consumer.

“For the first time a leading retailer with numerous locations, quality recognition, and tens of millions of loyal customers has made it possible for end users to buy high-quality solar products at great prices and have the products delivered directly to their homes in a matter of days,” Grape Solar’s president, Ocean Yuan, said in a news release.

Selling them through Costco—home to the economy-sized everything—seems ideal for pushing solar technology mainstream, but can it work?

According to the Applied Materials, 2011 Summer Solstice Survey, over a quarter of Americans would consider installing solar panels on their home. Factors that influenced their decision include:

• Government incentives to help offset the installation costs (65%)
• An increase in the home’s value (54%)
• Having more information (49%)
• The ability to sell excess power to an energy company (47%)

From retail to revolution

It’s going to take more than solar panels on a shelf to begin a movement; solar energy sources make up less than one percent of U.S. energy consumption. Where other companies have failed, companies like Grape Solar and Lowe’s solar conduit, Sungevity, hope to take the retail route a step further with not only accessibility but also some serious coddling for the masses.

Sungevity makes it easy. Their online software provides customers with an iQuote, an assessment of what solar can do for them, what it will look like, and what it will cost them. In the future, there will be kiosks in Lowes providing this same information instantly to curious customers. The icing on the cake is Sungevity’s leasing program that helps ease the fears of upfront costs that, according to Applied Materials survey, most (65 percent) of Americans fear.

Andrew Birch, chief executive officer of Sungevity said, “I am thrilled about the potential of reaching Lowe’s 15 million weekly customers at their more than 1,750 retail locations with Sungevity’s services. This partnership marks a major acceleration point in our mission to make solar power easily accessible and affordable to homeowners nationwide.”

Grape Solar—who also offers its products on Amazon—just launched at Home Depot, making the move into big box retailers almost complete.

The real tipping point may not occur until people start seeing their meters actually go backwards. That’s when checkout lines at Home Depot will have people talking about poly-crystalline PV modules and inverters. Until then, it looks like hand-holding and consumer-coddling will be the order of the day for solar companies looking to win the hearts of retail.