Cleantech startups are expecting that the market for distributed solar energy — installing individual solar panels where power is needed — is going to grow as quickly as the personal computer and cellphone markets.

The most cost-effective way to use solar power is to slap solar panels on individual homes and buildings and provide power at a smaller scale rather than create massive solar panel farms. Large solar panel farms require a lot of money to build and to maintain the transmission lines that move the energy from point to point.

A panel of green technology startup executives made the comments at the GreenBeat 2010 conference in Palo Alto, Calif. The panel included Edward Fenster, co-founder of SunRun, Ron Van Dell, CEO of SolarBridge, and Danny Kennedy, founder of Sungevity.

“That S curve, you’ve been through it with the PCs and cell phones in your pockets, that’s what’s going to happen with this business,” said Kennedy. “We’re in the middle of the tide as it rises, so it doesn’t feel like we’re growing — but it’s going to take off.”

One challenge is to include both the technology to capture the solar energy and convert it to usable electricity in the same box, Van Dell said. An initial surge in growth — including a new source of jobs — will come from research and development of those micro-inverters that turn solar panels into a complete product that both captures solar energy and turns it into a useful power source.

But in order to win solar panels some widespread approval and acceptance, you have to make them sexy, Kennedy said. It’s important to give them the same appeal that Apple creates with its products in order to make consumers more willing to put panels on their roofs, he said.

“We have to learn from Apple — it doesn’t matter what motherboard or modem is in that bundle of components,” he said. “What matters is the service, and that you all feel so cool sitting there with your Mac computers.”