Long treated with a wary eye, soaring gas costs and improved processes and materials have led investors to start taking solar seriously

Recently DailyTech reported on how companies like Sungevity are revolutionizing the consumer solar power industry. Companies are cutting costs in estimating using satellite imagery, cutting production costs with mass production and computer optimized installation infrastructures, and utilizing improved materials.

The solar industry has been booming and experiencing the heaviest financial investment in years.  Among them are a plethora of enterprising web startups looking to connect people to solar panels in the most efficient way possible.  Among them is Joseph Brakohiapa, CEO of Clean Power Finance.  His company just scored a major contract last Friday with German solar panel manufacturer Conergy, which use the company's financing options and software resources in its U.S. distribution network. 

The founder of Clean Power Finance is Gary Kremen, a rather legendary investment entrepreneur, known for his acquisition of the infamous domain name  Kremen and other big names in investment capital are showing newfound enthusiasm for the solar industry and online options.  Their take is by making the panel buying and installation process more like leasing a car, customers will take to it in droves.  In their mind, once people see how much money they'll be saving in a month, and how little hassle it will require, it will be easier to bring them onboard.

The biggest challenge is upfront costs.  Solar panels can cost $20,000 to $35,000 on a standard size home, and installation can be as high as half the cost of the panels themselves.  Tax rebates help to dull the blow, but it’s still a sizeable expenditure.

This means that most growth is limited to green consumers and corporations, two groups willing to part with large sums of money for long-term financial and environmental returns.  Brakohiapa states that the problem is that these green consumers have already bought panels.  He states, "For the industry to continue to grow in the residential space, we have to appeal to the mass market and find ways for the everyman to step into solar and get the benefits.  At some point, it's going to be difficult to convince people to make large investments simply based on the fact that it's green."

Clean Power Finance and rival SunCity both have lease programs in the works.  SunCity already rolled its program out in several states.  SunCity CEO Lydon Rive states that by leasing customers should see an immediate return and can have the option of eventually buying the cells.  Clean Power Finance has thus far only implemented a loans program to help with the initial capital, but plans to soon roll out a similar program.

Yet another enterprising idea is to allow neighbors with panels to sell electricity to their non-panel-equipped neighbors, using a setup similar to the standard pre-determined electrical rate used by power companies.

One of Clean Power Finance's big initiatives is to provide a SalesForce-like compilation of data.  The company provides up to date info on the tax rebates in every state and local region, on the electrical production of available panel models, and on utilities' electrical rates across the country.  This info helps installers give better estimates on the cost and return.

Brakohiapa says that one challenge is getting the more technical-geared solar power industry up to speed in sales competence.  He states the need for using more straightforward figures with customers; "Solar is still a technical sale. Installers are more comfortable talking about kilowatts but the consumer really isn't there.  Tell me that if my monthly payment to the utility is $500, I can get it to $450. Then I'm in."

Last year, solar start-ups looking to develop more efficient solar cells netted $1B USD in funding.  Solar experts say that along with the resulting benefits in production, the cost of cells will also be going down due to increases in the scale and capacity of manufacturers, essentially from increased and optimized mass production.

Many companies that currently sell to utilities looking to build solar plants, or to companies, are looking to jump into the consumer market soon.  Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen has a "fabulous residential solution" in the works, and also looks to bring the power costs of his company's panels down to $1 per watt.

These advances march solar power closer and closer to "grid parity" without tax rebates -- meaning that solar production will soon match traditional fossil fuel production in terms of cost per unit of power, with infrastructure investments factored in.  Some companies are even deploying in-home displays in new homes to show customers how much power their using, and potential savings from solar.

With the credit crunch, and sagging economy, some of the consumer growth in solar has slowed.  However investors like Brakohiapa believe that Wall Street Lenders will soon be jumping on solar.  He points out that they are already involved through companies such as SunEdison and SunPower, which signed a deal with Morgan Stanley.  He states optimistically, "Some investment banks are realizing that they can reach consumers and they can start investing in energy portfolios.  Over time, we are going to see more players in the financial space."

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