Jan. 21, 2010, Las Vegas — In reviewing the latest trends in solar products for the home, speakers at the International Builders' Show painted a picture of a country still lagging behind and still cautious and cost-conscious, but also one that's growing more and more receptive to alternative energy systems and committed to widespread implementation.

The bad news, the U.S. Department of Energy's Charlie Hemmeline said, is that the United States sits in fourth place in photovoltaic (PV) installation/capacity, behind Germany, Spain, and Japan. On the other hand, the country's "world-class" solar intensity, which is far greater than global-solar-leader Germany, means our opportunity for additional capacity is virtually limitless.

Within the U.S., California holds a significant lead in solar installations, with 180 megawatts versus 20 megawatts for second-ranked New Jersey. "Our view is it's worth looking into right now, because costs are coming down and technologies are improving," Hemmeline said.

Upfront retail solar costs—which hover around $8 per watt—still limit widespread acceptance. But Hemmeline says solar's cost-competitiveness (as compared with traditional energy sources) is making PV a more viable option. Currently, solar is break-even for 11 percent of residential electric sales; by 2015, per-watt solar costs are expected to drop to $3.50/watt, which, combined with rising energy costs, should put solar at a cost-competitive price point for 88 percent of the country.

Helping the market along is a continued introduction of federal, state, and utility incentives for both builders and homeowners, says Aaron Nitzkin, executive vice president of PetersenDean Roofing and Solar Systems in Vacaville, Calif. But buyers are still facing financing constraints, as cash isn't an option for most and home equity loans are hard to come by. One option growing in popularity is Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) bonds—low-interest solar financing assessed through property taxes.

For builders considering solar, Nitzkin recommends selecting a roofing and solar contractor, which can provide an integrated solar and roofing warranty—and therefore a single point of accountability.

Walter Cuculic of Pulte Homes, whose Villa Trieste solar community is located in nearby Summerlin, offered additional recommendations for getting started with PV:

  • Train sales and marketing staff: Bring them in early in the planning process to ensure they understand the value and what it means to buyers.

  • Train mortgage providers: Ensure they know how to finance the systems and are familiar with energy-efficient mortgages.

  • Get to know your utility: If it doesn't have a solar incentive or partnership program, talk to the company about starting/participating in a pilot.

  • Interview as many installers and manufacturers as possible: Products and value-added services vary greatly from provider to provider. For example, some offer online monitoring, which takes the follow-up burden off the builder.

  • Leverage the media: Solar projects can generate a lot of press, which can help drive sales traffic. And above all, don't install photovoltaics until you've tackled the performance of the rest of the house. "Unless you're building to HERS 60 or less, don't consider solar," Cuculic said, echoing the sentiments of many green builders. "Make energy efficiency your goal first."

    Katy Tomasulo is eeputy editor for EcoHome.