Solar Power for Your House, Courtesy of Google

NEW YORK -- Google wants to buy solar panels for your house.

The search giant announced Tuesday that it will provide $75 million to build 3,000 residential solar electricity systems across the country. Google will own the panels, and get paid over time by customers who purchase the electricity the panels produce.

Google is creating a fund with a San Francisco company called Clean Power Finance that local solar installers will be able to tap so they can offer financing plans to prospective buyers. The plans allow homeowners to install a $30,000 solar electricity system on their house for little or no money up front. Instead, customers pay a monthly fee that is the same or less than what they would otherwise be paying their local utility for power.

Google will earn what it calls an attractive return on its investment in two ways. It gets the monthly fee from homeowners, and, as the owner of the systems, Google will get the benefit of federal and state renewable energy subsidies.

The systems will not carry the Google brand, however. Instead, local installers will offer the financing deal under their own brands.

Solar power has gotten dramatically cheaper, but the up-front cost for a homeowner remains formidable. A typical home system costs $25,000 to $30,000. Federal and state governments offer subsidies to help defray the cost somewhat, but it is still far too much money for many homeowners to shell out.

Solar financing plans are offered by a handful of large solar companies such as SunRun, SolarCity and Sungevity, and they are growing in popularity. Google established a $280 million fund with SolarCity in June to help SolarCity expand its offerings.

But Google's new fund will flow instead to small, local installers who would otherwise not be able to offer these financing plans. Google says there are 1,400 solar installers in all 50 states.

"Cash sales (of solar panels) have been good, but once you add financing, sales can go through the roof," said Rick Needham, Director of Green Business Operations at Google, in an interview. "It's an opportunity to significantly expand the market."

This is the second such fund established by Clean Power Finance. The company declines to name the investor in the original fund, but says the amount of the fund is larger than Google's. Google hopes its investment will show a way for other investors to team up with installers to finance many more home solar systems and make a profit in the process.

This is the latest a string of investments Google has made in renewable energy, now totaling $850 million. Google has invested in wind farms in North Dakota, California and Oregon, solar projects in California and Germany, and a project off the East Coast that's meant to help make offshore wind farms possible.

Google has said that it is disappointed that it can't buy renewable electricity for its power-hungry data centers so it is investing to help renewable power expand in scale.

One of Google's 10 philosophical pillars is: "You can make money without doing evil," and reducing the environmental impact of its business has long been a focus of co-founder and CEO Larry Page. The company says that since 2007, it has completely offset its emissions of greenhouse gases by paying for projects that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

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See 10 Solar Decathlon Homes That Will Knock Your Lights Out
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Solar Power for Your House, Courtesy of Google

The Appalachian State University team designed a home, "The Solar Homestead," that uses "outbuilding modules" that serve as independent solar collection cells and are based on the lean-to sheds that were common to traditional Appalachian homesteads. The outbuilding area, whose modules collect and convey renewable energy, can be used as a porch, outdoor kitchen, guest room, carport or storage shed.

See a solar home on the market. 

Team Canada's "TRTL" (Technological Residence that respects Traditional Living) offers two bedrooms and a large dining-cooking area and is outfitted with cutting-edge green techonlogy. Built with materials resistant to mold and fire, the design of the house's exterior pays homage to traditional homes of indigenous communities native to the area of Alberta, Canada.

See a solar home on the market. 

Made up of the University of South Florida, Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Florida, Team Florida is fielding the "FLeX house," a home designed to suit the hot and humid climates of the schools' home state. Its name refers to the home's spatial flexibility: inhabitants may adjust moveable components to rearrange its layout.

See a solar home on the market. 

The University of Illinois returns to the competition with the" Re_home," a house designed to be a more sustainable housing option for natural disaster victims. The home is about 1,000 square-feet, uses low-cost materials, can be assembled within hours and - with its solar-power apparatus - ensures immediate power supply to victims who might otherwise be left without electricity in the aftermath of a disaster.

See a solar home on the market. 

Paying special attention to affordability, Team China's home, the "Y Container" fits together shipping containers to create a Y-shaped structure. The home, capped with solar panels, features a deck that collects water, super-insulating materials and air ventilation, all of which reduce energy costs.

See a solar home on the market. 

The Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology teamed up to create "CHIP," short for Compact House Infinite Possibilities, which gleefully departs from any recognizable style of home. Wrapped in a skin of "outsulation" that makes the home airtight and water-resistant and capped by solar panels, the home's interior is terraced to create a bed-groom-dress-eat-live-work progression that you walk up and walk down to begin and end your day. The home is outfitted with technology that uses excess heat to boil hot water and also has an automation system that displays exact measurements of the home's energy usage.

See a solar home on the market. 

Designed by Hampton and Old Dominion universities, who have partnered for the competition, the Unit 6 "Unplugged" aspires to encapsulate the "Arts and Crafts" character of homes native to Norfolk, Va. One of the home's most distinctive features is its sunspace, which functions as a porch in the summer and heat sink in the winter. 

See a solar home on the market. 

Comprised of Massachusetts College of Art and Design and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Team Massachusetts' entry is a compact, energy-efficient home designed to accommodate a family of three. The "4D" home tips its hat to time by taking into account the changes families go through over the years. Moving walls allow inhabitants to re-structure the home's interior to suit their needs. For example, if a child moves out of the house, his parents may eliminate his room. The solar trellis outside provides shade for the house in addition to supporting a solar array. The team plans to sell the house for a reduced price after the competition.

See a solar home on the market. 

Coming from an institution that has committed to being carbon-neutral by 2016, Middlebury's team used exclusively natural building materials like sustainably harvested wood, recycled insulation and natural finishes to construct "Self-Reliance," named after the essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Influenced by the design of the traditional New England farmhouse, the home is entirely solar-powered, costs less than $250,000 and, though smaller than your average house, makes efficient use of its space to accommodate a family of four.

See a solar home on the market. 

Catering to Manhattan's concrete jungle, the "Solar Roofpod" is designed to sit atop mid-rise buildings. The home has a solar trellis that supports the solar array and solar thermal collectors that spread heat through a radiant floor system.

See a solar home on the market. 


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