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Start-Up Leading Revolution in Solar Technology

A Flagstaff company is at the forefront of a new idea that could make solar technology more accessible and affordable.

Three local entrepreneurs recently launched Plug and Play Solar Kits of Arizona. It is one of a handful of companies nationwide that are selling solar panels that don’t need to be installed by a professional solar company or electrician.

The idea is similar to plug-and-play electronics products. Consumers can simply pull the solar panel out of the box, attach it to a stand, adjust its angle to the sun and plug it into an outdoor 120-volt outlet.

A meter tells the user how much energy is being generated by the sun, how much they are saving on their electric bill and how much they are reducing their carbon footprint. They can move the unit around to find the optimal spot.

“It’s essentially just like any other appliance in your home that you would plug into an outlet, except that it produces power instead of using power,” said Ryan Holtz, president of Plug and Play Solar Kits.

Plug-and-play solar devices are a hot topic at the U.S. Department of Energy, which this year announced a $5 million initiative to develop solar systems that can be purchased, installed and operational in one day.

The Energy Department’s goal is to reduce the “soft costs” of solar installation, such as installation, permitting and interconnection, which the DOE says account for more than half the cost of residential solar systems.

A portable product also makes solar energy possible for renters and homeowners who do not want to make a major investment, says Joanna Tepley, chief financial officer of Plug and Play Solar Kits.

“A solar investment is difficult even if you own your own house because you don’t know if you’re going to live there in X number of years,” she says. “This gives you the freedom to invest in solar and take it with you when you move.”

Over the next four years, the Energy Department plans to ask Congress for an additional $20 million to refine and improve plug-and-play technology.

But so far, only a few companies have entered the market. Holtz says he and his business partner, Jim Corning, were unaware of the federal funding.

They developed their first plug-and-play solar panel three years ago when their other company, Prometheus Renewables, demonstrated how solar panels work at a sustainable-energy fair at Coconino Community College.

Prometheus designs and installs solar and wind equipment at businesses and homes in Northern Arizona.

In a traditional solar array that is tied to the utility grid, multiple panels are connected to one another. The direct current (DC) power they generate from the sun is carried to one inverter, which converts DC to alternating current or AC. That is the type of electrical current that is used in homes and businesses in the United States.

That electricity, produced by the sun, is then sent to a building’s electrical panel and is used to run the lights, computers and appliances. Any extra electricity is sent through the utility meter and out to the utility grid.

But that was a hard concept for Holtz and Corning to demonstrate at the community college’s sustainability fair.  So the two engineers decided to install a small inverter, a transformer and some circuitry onto a photovoltaic panel.

Small inverters, called micro-inverters, are becoming popular in the solar industry. They perform the same function as a conventional inverter, but they are installed onto each individual solar panel. They also convert direct current to 240 volts of alternating current.

The transformer that Holtz and Corning installed reduced the 240 volts to 120 volts. When they plugged the unit into a standard outlet at the community college, people were able to see how much electricity was being produced on a digital monitor.

After researching and refining the idea, Holtz, Corning and Tepley are about to launch a plug-and-play solar panel on their new website: www.plugandplaysolarkits.com.

One panel sells for $1,147, although multiple panels will be discounted, Tepley says. In addition, she says the federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit on solar panels. Northern Arizona residents who can pick up the unit will get a $150 shipping discount.

Holtz says one panel will save the average Arizona consumer about $10 a month, so it would take at least 10 years to recover the investment cost. He says that cost recovery is similar to traditional solar systems. This model, he says, allows customers to add on to their system as it fits into their budget.

Tepley says the company’s target market is young professionals who want to be part of the green movement but who have been priced out of the solar market.

“They don’t have $15,000 or $30,000 to put a unit in their home,” she said. “Literally, if everyone in the country had just one of these panels, we could change the world. We’re going to start small, one panel at a time, and give people the opportunity to be a part of this solar movement.” FBN



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