How to Sell Solar Panels: Turn Them Into Name-Brand Household Goods

Last Updated May 11, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

Solar panels are expensive -- more than almost any household appliance. Yet despite the price, most people with solar on their houses don't know anything about the companies that made them. Would it be possible for solar companies to develop desirable name brands that consumers actually look for?

Akeena Solar is hoping so. I spoke with CEO Barry Cinnamon yesterday about his company's plans to focus more on branding, image and other intangibles over simply focusing on hitting the lowest price possible, as his industry has done for years.

"The whole industry has been hammering on low price, but it's having a tendency to commoditize solar," he told me. "Everyone's running to the bottom of low price, but if a solar panel system were like cars, we'd all be driving Pintos and Ugos."

From a consumer's perspective, there's not a lot wrong with commoditizing solar -- companies are competing with each other to scrape by with the narrowest margins and lowest costs possible. But there are some advantages to thinking beyond low price. Akeena started doing that two years ago when it launched its Andalay solar panel, which it markets as a snap-in alternative to the complex and clunky systems already in use.

The Andalay got Akeena a partnership with Lowe's, where its solar panels are visibly stocked on the shelves -- the only instance so far of a panel being directly sold in a store. The panels are about $900 each, but they can potentially be installed by the DIY crowd, although it costs about the same to have them professionally installed, according to Cinnamon.

Andalay panels also differ in looking a bit sleeker than the competition, although a true aesthete probably wouldn't want either. But Cinnamon sees the future changing, with safety, looks and brand all becoming important. That also implies that four or five big brands will take over the market. "The major brands will be from GE, Sharp -- the companies whose only differentiation is that they're cheapest, they're toast," he said.

For now, Akeena is struggling to pull out of a growth plateau it hit during the recession. The last quarter was flat as compared to last year. But Cinnamon claims that demand is rising again, and will continue to do so unless there's another jolt to consumer confidence.

And in the meantime, solar is becoming a mainstream concept, beyond just tech geeks and environmentalists; current events like the BP oil spill will bring more attention to renewables, and electricity prices are going up, making solar power prices more attractive by comparison.