For DIYers, Solar Panels Come to Lowe's

Many homeowners have shied away from solar panels because of their cost and complexity. But the the sunlight-catching panels are starting to come down to earth.

Home improvement retailer Lowe's recently began selling ready-to-install solar panels on the shelves at some its California stores, making it one of the first places to sell solar panels directly to homeowners.

Lowe's says the solar panels, made by Akeena Solar, are more consumer-friendly than traditional panels. "The system is a lot simpler and a lot safer than most solar panels out there," said Steve Salazar, a Lowe's spokesman. Still, while an experienced do-it-yourselfer can probably install the $893 panels, Lowe's recommends that buyers talk with a professional installer, hire an electrician and have a contractor pull the proper city permits.

Home Depot, the Lowe's rival that President Obama recently chose to discuss plans to encourage homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient, sells solar panels on its web site, but they are aimed more at contractors that consumers.

The solar panels are sold in "Energy Centers," which have been established at 21 of 106 Lowe's stores in California. The centers are designed to help customers measure how much energy they use, reduce energy consumption with money-saving products, and generate and use renewable energy. The Energy Centers are expected to be rolled out across the country and Canada in 2010, said Salazar.

The 5-feet by 2.5-feet Akeena panels are plug-in AC systems that have fewer components than the typical high-voltage DC panels, and can plug directly into a circuit breaker. A typical home needs 30 to 35 panels, Salazar noted. Each panels generates about 175 watts of electricity. Homes with the panels will still need to be connected to the energy grid, and while they can use and store solar power taken in on sunny days, at night they may need to revert to the grid.

Along with Akeena solar panels, the Lowe's Energy Centers will also sell 6.5 watt folding solar panels for $99 to charge car and boat batteries, cell phone and MP3 players.

Lowe's also plans to soon start selling utility-connected wind turbines by special order. The 10,000 watt turbine is installed on a 100-foot tower, and is suitable for rural homes, farms and small businesses. The turbine has a 7-foot wingspan can be be mounted to a rooftop or pole at various heights.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area who can be reached at
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