By Matthew Power. If you read the report by the NAHB Research Center in 1994, integrating photovoltaic (PV) systems into new homes seemed like an impossible sell. In the rare cases where PV made it on to the blueprint, the study reported, architects made the push. But "if the PV system is difficult or costly to install, it will have difficulty being accepted by roofers and manufacturers." Even if a PV system slipped through the cracks, the builder or homeowner might veto the installation if it negatively affected the appearance of the roof.

The only ray of hope: If builders tried to "energize" homeowners by talking up the idea of control over their energy and being good green citizens, they might sell some solar panels.

Triple threat

That was then. Eight years later, the prospects for solar have completely turned around. In recent months, some of the biggest builders in the country--U.S. Home, Morrison Homes, Shea, Beazer, D.R. Horton, Pardee, and others--have suddenly, unexpectedly, become sun worshippers.

Ian McCarthy, CEO of Beazer Homes, wants to live under a solar roof. So does Bob Walter of Morrison--though he calls them power roofs. ("We stopped using the word solar.") Such influential leaders, supported by progressive utility companies and energy rebates, have carried that enthusiasm into the field, with plans for hundreds of complete, grid-connected systems in new subdivisions. What happened? Was it something they ate at Builder 100? An alien abduction?

Neither. Solar companies got smart, and consumers got scared. AstroPower hired Bob Ruggio, a former Toll Brothers employee, to head up its builder sales. Steve Coonen at Atlantic Energy Corp. teamed with solar advocates at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), like Mike Keesee. And parties from both industries identified the new-home builder as the key player in any effort to push PV into the mainstream.

At the same time, events conspired to draw public attention to on-site power generation:

  • Rolling blackouts in California and political murmurings about an impending power crisis scared the bejeezus out of a lot of homeowners.
  • Dependence on computer technology has greatly reduced the tolerance for unstable power. According to the Electric Power Institute, about 10 percent of all electricity used in the United States now passes through digital equipment.
  • Clean air requirements have made photovoltaics a powerful tool for developers hoping to minimize the impact of new homes.

For example, after U.S. Home's Bickford Ranch project in Lincoln, Calif., came under fire from environmental groups, the company announced plans to include 917 non-polluting, grid-connected, solar roofs. "We hope people will come here 10 years from now and hold this up as the model for a planned community with solar," says Brian Bombeck, division president with U.S. Home's Sacramento office. "This is time-tested technology. We can't afford to be the guinea pigs."

Function and form

Two photovoltaic companies have landed most of the big builder contracts so far: AstroPower of Newark, Del., and Atlantis Energy Systems, of Sacramento, Calif. They have contracted several large-scale residential projects--unlike anything ever seen in the states. Bickford Ranch alone will include almost 500 complete roof-mounted systems from each company.

The solar companies hope to make PV a standard line item of any home building package. But to really achieve that, says Shea Homes' Jonathan Dome, the industry has to become affordable without the help of any subsidy. At this point, that's not the case.

Fortunately, numerous programs exist to get PV into the hands of tract builders at a much reduced price. Special energy-saving subsidies and assistance from local utilities have made all the difference in California.

"At present, we depend on [subsidies] to make solar affordable," notes Dome. "Otherwise, we simply wouldn't be able to do it."

Current projects take advantage of energy-efficiency rebates (which vary by state). Utilities play a critical role, as well. For example, SMUD actually buys PV systems at a volume discount, then resells them to builders, greatly reducing hard costs. Builders pay installation costs.

Keesee points out that none of the PV systems being installed by builders protect against power blackouts because they don't include the expensive battery backup systems (although that feature can be added as an option). That needs to be made clear to buyers.

On the other hand, he says, "those outages are all planned, and there have only been a few. If people are concerned about losing power for a few hours, we suggest they buy a backup generator or get an uninterruptible power supply.

"The point was to make PV an affordable option," he adds, "not to eat up the total upgrade budget."

Promises, promises

Bleeding-edge technology, economies of scale, air quality concerns, and fluctuations in the cost of natural gas have delayed the commercial viability of other alternative energy systems.

Fuel cells

Pro: These chemical-based power systems promise a low-emission, reliable source of energy, free from the municipal grid and transmission costs.

Con: Making the cells affordable for residential use has proven difficult. Commercial release dates keep getting pushed forward. Price spikes in natural gas, the current fuel of choice, reduce the potential payoff for consumers.


Pro: A small microturbine, which works like a jet engine, (25kW or so) could power 10 to 12 homes. The units are reliable and burn various fuels at better efficiency, with less noise than their larger counterparts.

Con: Most microturbines run at about 30 percent efficiency. While much cleaner burning than automobiles and other small engines, they produce far more emissions than fuel cells or renewables, such as solar or wind power (which create none).

Wind turbines

Pro: Vastly improved in efficiency and widely available, mass-produced wind power has come of age. Large-scale projects are booming, along with small, site-specific installations.

Con: Wind is a highly site specific, intermittent resource. Small-scale wind turbines are highly visible and may be too noisy for some homeowners. Wind generation so far has proven most efficient on a fairly large scale.