Every so often, news of a new product reaches us at Tech Spec and sets the imagination off on an excursion into theoretical possibility. As ill-advised as that may sound, it does allow for the “stretch” necessary to write about a product that, at least at the moment, has no presence in the home building industry—or many other places, for that matter, at least in terms of this particular product.
It is a generator. A solar generator. That means it costs nothing to run, makes no sound and, depending on size, can power the average job site—or even model home—when and where electricity is not readily available.
We do realize that it is not likely that production home builders would be setting up job sites in planned communities before the lots were improved and the infrastructure installed. However, it seemed that powering a sales center with one of these generators would be a good way to demonstrate the value and convenience of solar power and the builder's commitment to the environmental cause. Not to mention that the generator could be hauled and deployed wherever, whenever needed.
This is not to say there's anything particularly new about solar panels providing portable power. Tech Spec has just never seen it done on this scale, between 3.5 and 12 kilowatts of power, depending on the model.
These particular generators are from Spirit of the Sun Solar Systems, a mom-and-pop operation run out of Cornville, Ariz. It is a relatively new venture that so far has built only two of these units, both 3,500-watt models. But the pop part of the operation—Daniel Jones—has some serious bona fides: He spent 20 years as an electronics technician with IBM in Endicott, N.Y., before taking early retirement in the early 1990s.
Shortly after he left IBM, he bought some property up in the Adirondacks, where he proceeded to build a hunting camp with four cabins in addition to his residence. The nearest power was three-and-a-half miles away, and the power company wanted $50,000 to run lines in. So he built a photovoltaic solar system for his house and used gasoline generators to power the cabins.
He soon tired of the noise and schlepping fuel in to run the generators. So, in 1997, he built a portable solar generator, one of the two he now has on hand. It had 1 kilowatt of photovoltaic panels, a 3,500-watt inverter, and battery storage that would last up to three days, basically providing power equivalent to that produced by a 5,000-watt fossil-fuel generator. When the sun was missing for three days or more, he'd use his old gas generator to charge the batteries.
“It worked great,” he says.
By 2007, however, the lack of sun in upstate New York was getting to Jones, so he packed up and moved to Phoenix. Near where he moved in the foothills outside the city, a neighborhood association each year erected a holiday display on the median of a divided highway. It was powered by a gasoline generator, but people began complaining about the noise and fumes. Jones sold them on the idea of his generator, and he built a second unit. Spirit of the Sun Solar was born.
Alas, the municipality decided to provide the association with free power, so Jones began thinking of where else he could sell his generator. He began pitching FEMA, among other government emergency agencies. And he is eyeing the home building market.
It is a family operation. Jones is the chief designer and builder. And the units are not cheap. He quotes prices of $10,000 for the 3,500-watt unit and $45,000 for a 10-kilowatt unit.
But the solar generators come with a certain cache that could probably be put to good use by an enterprising new-home marketer. They are quite literally cool. And they cost nothing to run.