Regular readers of sustainablog will probably recognize the name Kriss Bergethon, as he’s contributed a number of guest posts over the last few months on topics ranging from off-grid living to the latest solar news. Writing isn’t Kriss’ main gig, though… he and his wife Sue are the owners of Solar Sphere, an online store that sells a wide range of solar and energy efficient products… from solar lighting to full-scale solar power kits.
You don’t need to look very far to see that solar power is poised to take off… as Kriss noted in a post this week, we’re on track to double US solar power production this year. Yet, solar energy is still maligned in some corners, and misunderstood in many more. How can you add solar to your power mix… if not make it your exclusive source of electricity? Can you really install a solar system yourself? Is a solar system really something you want to buy online? I threw these questions and others at Kriss in an email interview this week…
The sustainablog Approved Interview: Solar Power Systems Retailer Solar Sphere
Jeff McIntire-Strasburg: I know from posts you’ve written here at sustainablog that you live off-grid… and started off doing so with little knowledge. If you were going to advise someone in a similar position (that is, thinking about going off-grid, but doesn’t have a lot of practical knowledge about it), what suggestions (or even warnings) would you give them?
Kriss Bergethon: Living off grid is much easier when you build the home knowing you are going to be off grid. Planning to use as little power as possible will make the solar power system that much more affordable. So I would take everything out of the electrical circuit that you can, especially things that generate heat (stoves, furnaces, hair dryers, microwaves, etc.). Using gas appliances for these things or skipping them altogether will reduce your power needs significantly and make for a much more energy efficient home.
JM-S: Solar systems strike me as products that might be difficult to sell online. What challenges do you face that a solar company selling face-to-face in a local market doesn’t?
KB: Often times there is some site evaluation that needs to be done that we have to depend on the customer for. But with new tools like Google Maps, and many others, we can do a pretty thorough job remotely. This is great because we have customers all over the globe now.
JM-S: How does social media play into meeting these challenges?
KB: We use social media primarily to communicate with our customers about solar news, new products, and the green lifestyle. Tools like Facebook and Twitter help our customers know that they are a part of community of folks that care about our environment and are interested in solar power.
JM-S: You sell a number of solar energy kits designed for “do-it-yourself” installation? How hard is it to install a solar system in a conventional house?
KB: With the systems we have now, it has never been easier. We have dozens of customers that have done it in the last few months and most just needed some tools, a little patience, and an electrician.
JM-S: What are the challenges that most homeowners don’t anticipate?
KB: Honestly the biggest problem our customers have is weaving through the regulatory process to get the proper approvals. There are often a couple different authorities that need to sign off on grid-tie system (the city and the utility usually) and they require a decent amount of paperwork. But we help people every day with that and its getting easier and easier.
JM-S: You sell a green product line, and clearly live in a very green manner. How else does environmental responsibility play into your business (particularly the behind-the-scenes elements)?
KB: We recycle 90% of our waste from our business, and use the remaining 10% to help heat our offices. We also compost and mulch our organic waste. Our offices are powered by solar power, and we pride ourselves on using very very little paper. I’ve had the same ream of recycled office paper in my desk drawer for about a year and half now.
JM-S: Solar power has captured our imagination… it’s probably the first energy source that comes to mind when people hear the phrase “renewable energy.” What’s the least understood element of solar power… particularly in terms of growing it into a much larger portion of our energy mix in the US?
KB: The hardest thing for people to grasp about solar power is the question “How much solar power do I need to power my …..?” This is the most consistent question we get, and many people think a 200W panel should power a 200W appliance.
It’s not quite that simple. You have to factor in how the panels will be installed, the panel angle, the geographic region, and the consumption pattern of the electronics. That’s why we have built a solar kit selector tool to aid in the decision: http://www.spheralsolar.com/SolarPowerKitSelector.html This tool will help people select the proper kit. But, as always, we are happy to help in the design process and this is where I spend about half my day.
Thanks to Kriss for taking the time to answer my questions… if you’re looking for solar products, check ’em out!