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Attention Shoppers: Solar Panels, Now on Aisle 5

Friday, 11 Dec 2009 | 5:27 PM ET

Going solar is getting a bit easier.

Andalay, Akeena Solar's do-it-yourself solar panels.
Source: Lowe's
Andalay, Akeena Solar's do-it-yourself solar panels.

Home improvement store Lowe’s began selling solar panels on Thursday, giving seasoned do-it-yourselfers a chance to install the devices on their roofs themselves.

“We see this as the start of a whole new distribution lane for solar, and a whole new level of awareness for customers.” said Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena Solar, the company that is producing the solar kits for Lowe’s.

The retailer is selling the panels—called Andalay—for $893 each at 21 stores in California. The items are part of the Lowe’s Energy Centers—kiosks that help customers determine ways they can reduce the amount of energy they use in their homes.

Besides the Andalay, Lowe’s sells other smaller off-grid solar products from SunForce that can be used for powering things like an RV or used for backup power. Lowe’s is also offering wind turbines by special order.

Other big box retailers have offered solar power before. Home Depot once sold a do-it-yourself solar kit in stores that it now sells only on its Web site. However, the retailer does sell solar panels through special order and provides installation services. “We saw that our customers wanted help installing them,” said a spokesperson at the company.

Costco also sells off-grid solar units on its Web site for RVs and will start selling them in stores as a seasonal item in March.

Experts say the compelling part about the Andalay panels is that they have fewer components and wiring than other panels, making them easier to install.

Also, while homeowners usually have to buy multiple panels, customers can buy just one from Lowe’s “and see if they like it and want to add more to the system," says Cinnamon. One panel can generate enough energy to power a television for a year, he says.

“It’s impressive that they are the first in a big box retailer. It’s a real coup,” said Jennifer Schwab, director of sustainability at Sierra Club Green Home. Investors had a similar reaction: Akeena Solar’s stock shot up over 50 percent on Thursday after the announcement.

But other aspects of adding a solar system may prove challenging.

First, “you have to have the guts to get them on your roof,” said Schwab, whose organization is dedicated to helping people be more sustainable at home. It will take a moderate to experienced do-it-yourselfer to get that job done.

Robert Strong, an architect who teaches a class on how to install solar panels at Pace University in New York, says that installing panels could be tricky and problems such as a leaky roof could arise if the installation isn't done correctly.

Another benefit of hiring professional installers is that they handle necessary paperwork such as the permits and forms that allow homeowners to receive tax credits from the government and incentives from utilities.

Though more experienced people may be able to get the panels installed, a professional electrician is necessary in order to connect the panels to the grid. “This is serious, putting voltage back into the grid,” said Strong.

Even if do-it-yourself solar is not for everyone, having the panels easily available in stores still has its benefits.

“It’s creating public awareness, and that’s wonderful,” Strong added.

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