Making Solar Power Affordable 

A new San Francisco company lowers installation prices by pooling buyers together. Plus, a state agency votes to save small plug-in hybrid companies.

It's no secret that the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of solar power is price. Unless you live in Berkeley and are lucky enough to take part in that city's innovative municipal financing plan, you'll have to pay $20,000 or more, up front, to install a solar system on your home, even with state and federal rebates. That's far more money than most people want to spend or can afford. However, a relatively new San Francisco company, One Block Off the Grid, may have a solution that could jumpstart the solar-power industry.

One Block Off the Grid, or, makes home solar installations more affordable by pooling buyers together in the same geographic region to increase their purchasing power, and thus lower prices. "The bigger the pool gets, the better deal you get," explained company co-founder Dave Llorens. He added that you can buy a standard-sized solar power installation for your roof from 1Bog for less than $13,000, after rebates, which is a cheap enough price to allow you to recoup your money over the life of the solar system. "It's a slam-dunk for anybody with a monthly electric bill of about $100," he said.

And if $13,000 is still too much cash upfront, 1BOG's financing partner in California, SunRun, will allow you to install a solar system for as little as $1,000. SunRun, which is also based in San Francisco, offers a sort of lease-back deal, in which it buys the solar system at 1BOG's discounted price, and then installs and maintains it for you in exchange for a monthly payment. The amount of the payment depends on how much money you pay upfront, how much energy you use, and the length of the financing deal.

One Block Off the Grid groups buyers by region, such as the inner Bay Area, including Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose. The San Francisco-based company also is conducting group buys in Sonoma County, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, and New Orleans, and is launching programs in Sacramento and Phoenix later this summer. It just finished a group purchase in the Bay Area last week involving more than 100 solar buyers, and plans to launch another on August 1. Interested consumers can sign up in advance on the company's website,

Llorens said the price of solar installations is dropping rapidly because of a worldwide surplus of solar panels. The surplus was caused by a global drop in the number of solar installations due to the economic crisis. "Right now, panels are about 40 percent cheaper than they were six months ago," Llorens said. As a result, he said, the next group buy in the Bay Area will be significantly cheaper than what 1BOG charged per kilowatt in the last go round. "I can't tell you how much it's going to be," he said. "But I can say it's going to be awesome."

Participants in the program make no commitments by signing up in advance, and pay no money until installation time. During the sign-up period, 1BOG puts out a request for proposals from solar installers, based on how many buyers it estimates it will have, and then chooses the lowest responsible bidder. Llorens says the company plays no favorites because it charges installers the same fee, regardless of how low the winning bid is. He said the company also puts a premium on choosing experienced installers who have a track record of handling large projects.

Once the sign-up period is over, 1BOG sends the installer to your home to determine the size of the system you need and quote you a price. You're not committed to pay anything until you sign a deal with the installer. From then, it takes four to twelve weeks to complete the installation, depending on how busy the installer is. Llorens said it tends to take longer in summer months.

One drawback of the company's business plan is that it puts small solar companies at a disadvantage. Llorens acknowledged that they tend to work with larger solar companies that can handle big jobs. He explained that 1BOG is about promoting widespread use of solar energy, and that the best way to make systems affordable for large numbers of people is to pool them together and reach economies of scale.

Saving the Plug-In Hybrid, Part II

The California Air Resources Board voted late last month to grant the nascent plug-in-hybrid-car industry a reprieve. The board voted 6-2 on May 29 to allow small companies, such as 3 Prong Power of Berkeley, to convert up to fifty Toyota Priuses into plug-in hybrids before having to undergo expensive emissions testing. The board's staff had recommended that small companies could only convert ten cars to plug-ins before having to pay for the tests, which can cost up to $200,000. But the board rejected that proposal after business owners said it would bankrupt them, because it wouldn't give them enough time to raise money for the tests. "Overall, we were impressed that we actually made a difference and people saw our side," said Paul Guzyk, co-founder of 3 Prong Power. "It could have been a lot worse, and probably couldn't have gone much better."

Guzyk and his business partner Daniel Sherwood had proposed that the air resources board allow them to sell up to 100 conversion kits before paying for the tests, but the board deadlocked on that proposal 4-4. Air board staff was concerned that converted Priuses could cause more air pollution and urged for stricter standards, even though all sides agreed that plug-in hybrids lower greenhouse gas emissions. Plug-ins can get in excess of 100 miles per gallon because they can run on battery-powered electricity for around-town driving. Small conversion companies contended that they had found simple solutions that would not increase air pollutants.

Guzyk also credited the Express for its coverage of the plug-in hybrid issue, saying the paper's stories stimulated a "whole movement" to keep the air board from killing the plug-in-hybrid industry, just as it had done with electric cars earlier this decade. After an Express cover story earlier this year (see "Who's Killing the Plug-in Hybrid," 1/14/09), the air board rejected a staff proposal that would have forced small conversion companies to begin paying for the expensive tests right away.


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