A growing number of solar companies are looking at smart ways to market and install power-generating and solar heating systems in homes. We recently brought you the story of Armageddon Energy yesterday, an Atheron, Calif.-based company that has a prototype solar energy system using hexagonal solar panels and triangular racks (see An Idea for Solar?).

And here are three more companies that presented their ideas at a Clean Tech Open event in Silicon Valley this week. These solar businesses aren't experimenting with different semiconducting materials and developing cutting-edge solar cells.

Instead, they're looking for ways to cut labor and material costs to make solar energy more affordable.

Besides hosting events to match entrepreneurs, investors and potential customers, the Clean Tech Open also hosts competitions in the western United States and awards regional winners $100,000 in cash and services, while the grand champion is awarded with $250,000 in cash and services.

Redwood Renewables

Turning your rooftop into a mini solar power plant doesn't have to involve heavy glass-encased solar panels and aluminum racks. Redwood Renewables in Corte Madera, Calif. is developing tiles that frame solar cells in polymers that are cheaper install and prettier to look at, said CEO Tom Faust.

Installing the tiles would cost $4 per watt, cheaper than erecting a solar panel system, he said. The tile design also makes it easy for roofers to install. A solar panel system has more components, and the various shapes and roofing materials can make it difficult to design a suitable one. That has spawned companies dedicated to installing solar panels. In comparison, solar tiles can be easily installed by roofers, Faust said.

"People want value and aesthetics," he said.

Indeed, many homeowners prefer solar panels with black – instead of silver – frames because they don't want their solar energy systems to stand out.

Redwood is using monocrystalline solar cells, which can convert sunlight more efficiently than multicrystalline or thin-film materials. Faust said the cells could convert 18 percent of the sunlight that hits them into electricity. He's buying the cells overseas but declined to name the supplier. The tiles would come with a 25-year warranty.

Faust wants to raise about $30 million to build a factory that could produce enough tiles for 9,000 homes per year. The company already raised $1.6 million from investors including an undisclosed roofing manufacturer.

Solar roofing tiles are not new concepts, but they aren't as common as rectangular solar panels that have to be mounted onto racks and fixed onto roofs. Rochester Hills, Mich.-based United Solar Ovonic, for example, began commercial production of its solar tiles in 2003.

Solar Red

Kevin Cammack started Solar Red with a new design for the racks that hold up solar panels and are fixed onto rooftops. The goal was to lower material and labor costs. Labor alone could make up 30 percent to 50 percent of the expenses of buying and installing a solar energy system.

The trick is to install brackets while putting in a new roof. After that, adding solar panels would involve snapping on the racks, an approach that would eliminate drilling and prevent leakage, the San Jose, Calif.-based company said. Like Redwood Renewables, Solar Red aims to make it possible for roofers to install solar without a lot of training.

"It'll take five minutes to install each panel," Cammack said.

Cammack doesn't just want to sell only the racking system to roofers, however. He figures roofers or other installers might not want to deal with the hassle of providing customer and sales support that dedicated solar installers now offer, such as filling a myriad of paperwork to get state rebates and government permits.

The service business could be more lucrative than selling the mounting system, Cammack said. He's looking to raise $1 million to get the business going, or $6 million that would allow the company to do business in 10 states, Cammack said.


Want your satellite TV dish to pull a double-duty? You can turn it into a solar-thermal device to heat water and cool your home.

That's the pitch from Transoptic, which would place a layer of little hexagonal mirrors resembling a honeycomb or a chrome-coated plastic reflector onto the dish, said Behzad Imani, CEO of the San Mateo, Calif., company. The entire system comes with an optical receiver, PVC tube and an evacuated tube (see a YouTube video that shows how you can build one yourself).

The company wouldn't retrofit an existing dish but instead provide a new one that can receive TV signals and concentrate the sunlight and direct it to an optical collector for heating the water, Imani said. 

A 2-square-meter dish could generate roughly 82 Therms of energy per year, the company said. A standard water heater requires about 58 Therms per year. Each dish would cost about $300, and installation would cost roughly $300 to $400, Imani said.

Transoptic doesn't want to be in the business of selling the system directly to consumers and installing them. Instead, it wants to sell to home developers, roofers and distributors.

Imani said he has lined up a track home builder as a customer but declined to disclose the name. To fulfill the order, however, it would need to raise $250,000 initially to get started on manufacturing, he said. Imani said he would be looking for a larger amount if the credit crunch hasn't made fund-raising so difficult. The idea is to begin a small-scale production and then use the revenues to expand manufacturing.

When it comes to harnessing the power of the sum, solar water and pool heaters far outnumbers solar panels in the United States. Solar heaters are cheaper and you also could get rebates and claim tax incentives for installing them. 

Join industry leaders and influencers at Greentech Media's Concentrating Solar Technologies & Markets at Intersolar in Munich, Germany on May 29.