The potential of plug-n-play solar

Solar PV shade made by the Fraunhofer researchers

Why can’t there be a solar panel rooftop system that works as easily as your TV: no professional installation, no permits, just plug it in and start it up? That was a question that Ramamoorthy Ramesh, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, posed in his remarks at one of the largest solar conferences in the U.S., Intersolar, last week. “My 12-year-old kid can install my TV,” said Ramesh, suggesting how easy such a ready-to-go solar system could be.
The potential benefits from plug-n-play solar could be a massive game changer for the solar industry. Solar panels only make up 20 percent of the price of the entire rooftop system and the rest comes from other components, sales, marketing, permits and labor. If there was a solar product that removed some of these costs — like permits and labor — the entire cost of the product could drop dramatically. Such a system could be sold at a big box retailer, like Home Depot or even Best Buy, and be more accessible to the average consumer.
Well, that’s the idea anyway. The hurdles to such systems are sizable. Skimming through a workshop that the SunShot program put on earlier this year on the subject reveal some of the more obvious problems facing plug-and-play solar, including: safety concerns around installing an electrical system on a rooftop; the question of how do people make sure the solar panels are placed in the right way to maximize the sun exposure; the fact that many solar panels are too heavy for an average individual person to lift onto a roof; and the issue that current solar panels need specialized tools that many people don’t have.

Solar window tech from GCL

But the SunShot program wants to invest a little bit of money into thinking about ways around some of these problems, no matter how outside of the box that is. The program has pledged $25 million over five years to go into helping a plug-and-play solar system make it to commercialization. “We’re expecting teams of young people to forget everything they know about glass and photovoltaics,” and create “a totally new way of making solar panels that can be plug and play,” said Ramesh at Intersolar. The SunShot program explains the potential product as:

An off-the-shelf product that is fully inclusive with little need for individual customization. Homeowners can install the system without special training or tools. The homeowner simply plugs the system into a PV-ready circuit and an automatic PV discovery process initiates communication between the system and the utility.

SoloPower’s solar panel booth

Plug-and-play solar isn’t a new idea. Some companies have already been trying to commercialize such systems. A company called Veranda Solar was trying to be the Apple of solar, but doesn’t seem to be around any longer. Armageddon Energy makes a solar system in a box called the SolarClover. A company called Clarian Power has also developed a plug-in solar box.
During the SunShot program’s brainstorming session, participants suggested some solutions such as:

  • Have houses be solar ready: Develop a standard PV plug at the utility meter. Change the National Electrical Code. Have houses get smart solar-ready circuit breakers.
  • Use polymers and new materials that don’t need roof penetrations or specialized tools. Can a solar system fit over a roof like a bed sheet?
  • Panels that are very light can avoid some of these issues. Spray on paint photovoltaics?
  • Add GPS to panels to help them self-locate for best sun generation placement.