Join top executives in San Francisco on July 11-12, to hear how leaders are integrating and optimizing AI investments for success. Learn More

Screen shot 2009-12-14 at 3.58.30 PMLowe’s hardware stores are turning solar panel installation into a household project. Aiming to improve the user-friendliness of solar panels, all its new products require is a ladder, cordless drill and some sealing caulk. For about $350 you can have your own 50-watt solar array.

Similar to Home Depot, the chain store is now offering 13 home solar packages on its web site, with plans to make most of them available in-store by the end of the month. By 2011, all Lowe’s stores should have user-installed panels for sale. This is an early sign that residential solar, and user-installed photovoltaics in particular, could have a stronger market presence in the next several years.

By cutting installation costs out of the equation, Lowe’s could successfully make solar power seem like more of an everyday endeavor, rather than an expensive, complicated hassle. As prices drop, it could become a common project for new, young homeowners.

But, just to be clear, 50 watts isn’t going to power much. The compact fluorescent light bulb in my floor lamp needs 23 watts to stay on. My laptop, when it’s plugged in, draws 160 watts. So for $331 plus tax, you’re getting a solar panel that will keep two light bulbs shining — while it’s sunny out. For about $1,000, you can power a PC laptop. But it’s a start.

Most of the Lowe’s panels will be manufactured by Akeena Solar and Brightwatts, a Florida-based photovoltaics company. The 50-watt panel also comes bundled together with a Duracell power station that has AC and DC outlets and an alarm clock-radio built in.

If you use this power station (fed by the panel) to charge batteries for cordless tools in your garage or shed, the product makes sense. If you don’t want to power a full-size saw or drill, it could provide off-grid charging for a music system, for instance. Construction companies may find the bundle deal useful for larger contracts, where there might not be consistent electricity available.

Lowe’s is also offering an 80-watt panel from Sunforce, a slightly better buy when it comes to dollars-per-watt, but only available in one size for $500.

In terms of scalability and the home solar business, the ability to sell affordable panels to homeowners is big. Right now, power costs about 22 cents per kilowatt-hour in San Francisco. A kilowatt-hour is equivalent to 20 Lowe’s panels in the sun for an hour. These 20 panels would cost $6,600 before taxes.

Even without taxes and installation costs, it would take 30,000 hours of peak operation and zero maintenance costs to bring the cost down to current power-company rates. That means that you would have to wait three years of direct sunlight before the panels pay for themselves. Personally, I’d wait for prices to come down as predicted. But it’s good that Lowe’s is doing this now to warm the market up to the idea.

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.