If you happened to visit Builder's show home, the Ultimate Family Home, during this year's International Builders' Show in Las Vegas, and you didn't climb up and take a close look at the roof, you may have missed one of the home's most surprising features: an 8.2 kW photovoltaic (PV) system from AstroPower. This large house actually produces more energy than it consumes.

So what, right? Fancy show homes can afford expensive bells and whistles. But there's more to Pardee Homes' decision to add solar to this project than show home glitz. Pardee, like Beazer, Shea, and many other big builders, has recently given the residential PV industry an enormous boost. Each has begun to offer PV packages standard options in many of its communi ties. As a result, the solar people are over whelmed (not to mention overjoyed) with new residential business.

“We used to think 100 homes in a community with solar systems was a lot,” notes Addison Marks of Concord, Calif., a sales representative with Newark, Del.–based AstroPower. “Now, we're seeing places like Ladera Ranch in Southern California, with 453 solar-equipped homes.”

Joe Morrissey, sales director for Atlantis Energy Systems in Sacramento, Calif., sells Sunslates, glass-covered walkable PV panels that look and lay like slate roofing. “Beazer killed us,” he says, but he means that in only the most positive way. “We were airlifting materials in to give them what they needed.” He's talking about Beazer's partnership with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), where the home builder erected dozens of new homes with PV solar systems. This caused a complete turnaround in the thinking of several solar panel manufacturers—from commercial to residential applications. It also created a national awareness of PV as a value-added amenity for production homes.

Forces Align Marks says that his company now has PV systems going into more than 35 new communities. He credits the sudden surging interest to the convergence of several factors, including:

  • Better Looks. PV roofing panels now look almost indistinguishable from traditional roofing. AstroPower specializes in a product called Gecko, which integrates with architectural roofing tiles such as Monier Lifetile. Uni-Solar, based in Auburn Hills, Mich., offers an asphalt shingle–integrated system along with standing seam PV panels that tie in perfectly with metal roofs. And SunSlates look like extra-shiny slate roof tiles.
  • Lower Costs. Thanks to advances in technology along with energy incentives in several states, including California, Arizona, Nevada, New York, and New Jersey, the installed cost of PV systems can be reduced by up to 50 percent.
  • Builder Turnkey. Companies such as AstroPower have streamlined their business relations with home builders, arranging for turnkey installation, so all builders have to do is spec the system and sign the purchase order.
  • Low Interest Rates. Because interest rates have been so low, homeowners can roll the additional cost of a PV system into a 30-year mortgage. The additional cost: negligible.
  • Intangibles

    Of course, other psychological factors also may play into the surging interest in solar power. Power blackouts in California and the Northeast, for example, have shaken public confidence in utilities. Add to that the volatile ups and downs of heating oil availability and the huge price hikes in natural gas, and you can see why the public may finally be ready to embrace such alternative energy systems as solar.

    There's some additional circumstantial evidence, too. Other alternative power systems are also getting attention from the corporate world. General Electric Co., for example, recently purchased a large wind turbine business from the bankrupt Enron. The company expects it to be one of the fastest growing new business areas. Longtime critics of GE, such as the Sierra Club, note that it may also be seen as a way to counter GE's image as a polluter.

    The same might be said for big builders, who can deflect accusations by environmentalists of rapacious development practices by pointing out the low energy drain created by a PV-equipped home. In water-starved areas, the combination of solar features with water-saving efforts may allow them to keep building new homes.

    Whatever the motivation for adopting “clean” technologies such as wind and solar power, the end result looks to be a win-win for builders and consumers. It reduces dependence on foreign oil and gas, fuels the growth of U.S. solar companies, improves public relations, and provides reliable, clean—and less expensive—energy.

    Big Players Check out the roster of builders putting solar systems into their single-family products at the Terramor at Ladera Ranch project in southeast Orange County, Calif.

    Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.