Green business offers 'plug and play' solar panels

The solar panels can be installed by contractors without special training, owner says

Click on pictures to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

ReadySolar, a green business with Portola Valley roots, has been selling its boxed, pre-assembled solar panels in cities, towns and villages across the country for about 18 months. The panels are sold through contractors and in stores such as Sam's Club and Home Depot, but the working capital needed to keep the enterprise going has been hard to come by.

The company's pre-assembled, plug-and-play solar panels can be installed by contractors who haven't the specialized training needed to assemble, attach and wire traditional solar panels. For example, they can be installed by roofing, electrical, and heating-ventilating-and-air-conditioning (HVAC) contractors.

But it's been rough going because the company has to front the high cost of the panels to the contractors, said ReadySolar chief executive and Portola Valley resident Bob Giles in an interview. That front money has been coming from the pockets of Mr. Giles and his partners, and their Shanghai-based solar panel manufacturer. This routine may change soon.

"One of the nation's largest solar electric providers" has just acquired ReadySolar, which will add that company's deeper pockets to the situation and allow much deeper penetration into the residential solar electricity market, Mr. Giles said.

The United States is home to 50,000 electrical contractors, 10,000 HVAC contractors, and 10,000 roofing contractors with the skills to install these panels, Mr. Giles said.

"We (will be) putting the contractors in the United States in the solar business," he said. "I think net-net, it's a positive for the economy. I really feel that we've created a lot of employment out there."

What his enterprise will not be doing is creating green manufacturing and assembly jobs in the United States. All of that is being done in Shanghai. There are "very few" U.S. manufacturing and assembly facilities that could have answered his needs, Mr. Giles said.

"We're a service economy," Mr. Giles added. "The rest of the world is way ahead of us (in manufacturing and assembling solar panels). We're catching up, but they're way ahead."

The rest of the world also appears to be more bullish with respect to green enterprise financing. In his search for working capital prior to acquisition, he again turned to China, specifically to the Shanghai-based manufacturer of his solar panels.

"Without them, I would not be in business," said Mr. Giles, who previously worked at Bank of America for 14 years as a financier for air and water pollution amelioration technology.

"No bank in the United States would give us money," he added. "It's a sad state of affairs."

The founder of ReadySolar was Meredith McClintock, also of Portola Valley, and the owner of the garage out of which the company operated from 2004 until about 18 months ago, when Mr. Giles, who had been ReadySolar's president, bought Ms. McClintock out.

Mind the gap?

Among the claims Mr. Giles makes for his ready-made solar panels is that their skylight-like low profile makes them more aesthetically pleasing: Just one inch separates the leading edge from the roof.

There is usually a gap of 3 to 6 inches between the roof and the bottom of the solar panel to allow for adequate heat dissipation, said Damien Scott of Foster City-based Solar City, an installer of traditional panels and a company that has a significant number of installations in Portola Valley, Woodside, Atherton and Menlo Park.

Solar panels "generate a lot of heat," Mr. Scott said.

Asked to comment, Mr. Giles said that when solar panels get too hot, their efficiency drops. While there are no hard facts as to what gap is optimum, he said that the gap under ReadySolar panels increases to about 3 inches behind the leading edge.

Installation for a typical 2-kilowatt system takes one day, whether done by contractors using ReadySolar panels out of the box, or by a traditional outfit like Solar City, whose technicians assemble, attach and wire the panels on site.

Electricity costs have been rising by about 5 percent a year for the last 38 years, Mr. Giles said. A 2 KW system could cut a typical home's use of grid electricity by about half, he said.

Go to this link for more information on pre-assembled solar panels.

Go to this link for more information on traditional solar panels.

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