New Solar Business Trades On 'Open Sky' A new hardware store devoted exclusively to solar energy systems is about to open in Swarthmore, Pa. Open Sky Energy will sell solar hardware to consumers and businesses and will also design and install the equipment. Are green energy stores a growing trend?
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New Solar Business Trades On 'Open Sky'

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New Solar Business Trades On 'Open Sky'

New Solar Business Trades On 'Open Sky'

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Up next, OK, you've listened to us talk about energy, and alternative energies, and you've decided you want to do some shopping on ,your own and if you know, maybe you want to start with solar panels on your house. If you've ever considered putting solar panels on your house, you've probably had an experience, maybe something like this. You do a little googling, you find a place maybe hundreds of miles from your house that might sell you the solar panels, and a little more searching you find an installer. And you hear, well, maybe your installation might come from your neighbor's daughter's boyfriend's mechanic knows someone who can install them, right?

Maybe. But then how will you get them hooked up to your utility? How will you know if it's legal? What kind of legal ramifications? What about those tax credits you've heard about? Federal, some of them are state. Do you need an accountant for all of this? Well, it's enough for even the most stalwart do-it-yourself or to chuck it all and watch college football instead. But wouldn't it be great if you could just walk into a store, and order what you wanted, and have someone work out all the details for you.

Well, now you can, at least if you live near Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. It's where the Open Sky Energy System has set up shop. You walk in and the folks there promise to get you on to solar, and maybe even off the grid, and they'll do all the paperwork. Joining me more to - joining me to talk more about it is Benjamin Williams, chief technology officer for Open Sky Energy Systems. Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. BENJAMIN WILLIAMS (Chief Technology Officer, Open Sky Energy Systems): Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: If I walk into your store, what am I'm going to see?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, you're going to walk into some actually sustainable designer floors. It's renewable bamboo. We have all of our offices working on trying to get into the right spirit of it right away.

And you'll also see things like examples of installations, different kinds of solar panels, and you know...


Mr. WILLIAMS: Diagrams of the solutions to sort of help understand how the systems go together, and how you fit into the whole picture.

FLATOW: Will you help me draw up a whole plan for putting the stuff on my roof, and all the other parts I need?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

FLATOW: From soup to nut.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I mean, it's - the way we start out is we'll talk a little bit about the overall system, sort of frame your understanding of how it all works together in terms of regulatory structure and in terms of the actual technology itself.

We'll talk about what kind of - if you're going to mount it on your roof, which kind of roofs are the best, which direction? You know, south facing is of course, the best possible. But there's a lot of other options available.

You know, we'll talk about how the actual install will go, and last but not the least, of course, is the financial aspect where we talk about different ways to pay back your system or how to frame your investment, what kinds of financial structures you can use to make it more affordable. ..TEXT: FLATOW: And you'll help me do all that paperwork.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Filing with the government, or my taxes, or something like that.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Mm-hm.

FLATOW: And do you help me decide whether I want the electrical-producing panels or I want solar-thermal panels, are those two different kinds? Hot water or electricity?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I mean, each different solution is really best for a different kind of person, and for - you know, based on what you're trying to accomplish with your installation as well. As you point out, it's split up into electrical panels and solar-thermal panels.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thermal panels can help you offset your hot-water usage like a natural gas burner, or if you have an oil furnace, which heats your water, that can offset...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Your petroleum usage that way, or you can use it to directly heat your house, either through heating coils and a forced-air convection system, or through the floorboards. If you have a house that is available to install direct...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: In the floorboards, it can be a very efficient system where the fluid flows from the panels - the collectors on the roof, and through the floorboards in order to heat your house that way as well. ..TEXT: FLATOW: Mm-hm. Tim from Las Vegas has a question. Hi, Tim. Welcome to Science Friday.

TIM (Caller): How are you guys doing? And I want to thank you, Ira, for having a great show. Living in Las Vegas, of course, we've got a lot of sun. But one of the biggest problems that I've - that we're running into is, is that it is just so expensive to go ahead and put on even just for your water heater here. And it's very difficult to find also someone who can come out, and help you do maintenance on it. ..TEXT: FLATOW: Mm-hm. Ben, you help with all of that.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely true. You know, in terms of the maintenance that's required on them, certainly the fluid systems, the thermal systems do require a little bit more maintenance, because it's a moving fluid through.

You know, your hot water heaters that you have in your house often times have to be replaced as often as every 10 years. That's relatively the same for the systems in solar case. ..TEXT: FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: But in the case of photovoltaic panels, they're essentially maintenance free for the extent of the installation for, you know, 20 or 30 years.

FLATOW: What is the payback period on them?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, that is always the question that gets asked. And it really depends. If you are installing an average system, say, between three of four kilowatts, your capital costs, not counting any kind of rebates, any kind of credits, you know, your renewable energy credit trading or anything like that. You're looking at, you know, $30-40,000 for the install. Obviously, that's a pretty big price to pay. But when you count things like the rebates in Pennsylvania, we just passed a rebate. It looks like it'll be about 35 percent. The federal rebates were capped to $2,000.

There's a possibility that cap will be removed if and when it gets passed. So, you know, you're able to take off right off the top, almost 50 percent of your capital cost. Plus when you add in things like the renewable energy credit trading, which right now is trading for about $250 per megawatt in Pennsylvania, and as much as $450 to $500 per megawatt in states like New Jersey where it's a little bit more established, your payback period goes even lower. We've seen payback periods on the order of 6 to 7 years for sort of the perfect storm of rebates and renewable-energy credit paybacks.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's not really the most common scenario, but you know, between 10 and 15 years, it's certainly not unreasonable in a state that has both trading and rebates available.

FLATOW: And you find all the electrical contractors and the people to install it for your customers?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I mean, when it comes to regulations for doing installs in someone's house, local regulations trump all else. A lot of times, you'll have to go directly to the local ruling parties, and find out what they want from advanced drawings, find out what kind of installers and licenses you'll have to get.

We take care of all of that within the guides of our contract, and we'll make sure that it's registered within the township, or the city or, you know, whatever entity has to be done locally. ..TEXT: FLATOW: Are there any more people like you around the country?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I would have to say there are probably quite a few. We are one of the few in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and we felt like it was really important to make the jump from being a sort of a garage shop to a place with an actual store where people can come in and see, you know, what we've done, and sort of put their hands all over it, and really understand how the system goes together.

Most of the questions we get really are more of the - you know, they don't understand how everything fits together. How the systems work...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And where their system will fit into the greater grid power production.

FLATOW: Talking with Benjamin Williams, chief technology officer for Open Sky Energy Systems on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. How could we find people in their own neighborhoods, who find installers like you, Ben.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, as you pointed out in the beginning of your bit, I mean there's plenty of people you can find on things like Google on the Internet. More and more that becomes a clearing house for such things.

But a lot of areas, you know, Southeastern Pennsylvania included, have increasingly business groups that are focused on renewable energy, that are focused on green designs, sustainable designs. You know, we've formed partnerships with roofing companies, with green-design firms, architects, with general contractors. So, we try and hook up with the correct people, both to help us do installs correctly and make sure that we're keeping on the latest technology there.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: But also, to make sure that we're connected with all the right people who will want to get installed. So, you know, if you're getting a work done in your house anyway, I would try your - talking to your general contractor, try talking to an architect that's working with that, and also try looking around for business groups, you know, chambers of commerce.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: They oftentimes have a lot of connections to figure out how the, you know - or rather where these companies are.

FLATOW: And someone who started in a new business, can you make money in this business?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think so. I mean, it's a little tough right now, because everything is very much in flux. You know, as you were talking about earlier in the hour, you know, the tax credit legislation on the federal level is being thrown around quite a bit, but no one's really sure exactly how it's going to come out of the wash.

The same thing is true in many states. California and New Jersey probably the exceptions, with states like Connecticut and New York following as well, where you have very good programs in place. But the majority of the states I think are really just trying to figure it all out. And especially in Pennsylvania where they've passed the initial (unintelligible), which is a good step, but they have not quite figured out all the intricacies of implementing it yet.


Mr. WILLIAMS: That's what we hope to have in the next couple of months.


Mr. WILLIAMS: So I think you can definitely make money in it. I think it's going to be a very, very big market coming up in the future, as more people understand it better and the financial aspect, if it gets a lot better as well.

FLATOW: So there's no reason why anybody should hold back. They can find guys like you at Open Sky Energy Systems, and get those solar panels put in.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

FLATOW: All right, I want thank you and good luck to you. Thank you for taking time to be with us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, thank you.

FLATOW: Benjamin Williams, chief technology officer for Open Sky Energy Systems. If you're in Pennsylvania, that's in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. But as he says, there are places all over the country who have new businesses talking about green, new businesses that are starting up, trying to talk about alternative energies.

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