Big box solar and the clean energy revolution

An Ikea customer in France (Photo by Olivier Pon, Reuters)
An Ikea customer in France. (Olivier Pon/Reuters)

IKEA may have just fired the latest salvo in the clean energy revolution. Within the next 10 months, IKEA will begin selling flat-pack solar panel kits to retail customers in all of its 17 U.K. stores. And if that experiment is successful, IKEA could roll out the  experiment to stores in the United States and the rest of the world. That means that, while shopping at IKEA for cheap, affordable furniture, you can now stock up on solar panel kits to transform your home into an energy-saving showcase.

The innovative Swedish company already uses solar panels to power 40 of its U.S. locations, and is making available the same  technology to the mainstream public. The same way you might navigate through the aisles of an IKEA  picking up well-designed items at low prices – while simultaneously having a bit of fun with the delightfully absurd Swedish names for the products — you will also be able to load a few flat pallets of IKEA solar energy panels into your cart. Almost everyone can imagine checking out of IKEA with a DIY solar panel package (even if it costs almost $10,000) – something that’s not necessarily the case with other forms of renewable energy. (Presumably, it’s much more difficult to create flat-pack mini-nuclear reactors for the home.)

Rooftop solar panels may find more customers with Ikea joining the market. (Photo by Sam Hodgson, Bloomberg)
Rooftop solar panels may find more customers with Ikea joining the market.  (Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg)

What makes IKEA’s initiative so groundbreaking is not so much that the solar panels are being sold on shelves to the public at the big box retail level (you can already purchase solar panels at Lowe’s, for example).  It’s that IKEA is helping to make them attractive to people who might never have thought about solar power. If you shop at IKEA, you probably are already budget-conscious, so subconsciously at least, you will begin to equate solar power with something that’s fun, low-cost and low-risk. IKEA argues that there’s a real cost-savings involved in moving to solar – if you install solar panels on a typical three-bedroom house in Britain, you begin to break even after seven years. After that, your energy is essentially free. And since the solar panels will be sold alongside low-priced home furnishings, a young family with a new starter home might actually be enticed to go solar instead of spending an analogous amount of money upgrading a kitchen or living room with a professional designer.

This is actually something relatively new – convincing the average person on a tight budget to make large-scale investments in clean energy. For many of us, the extent of our buy-in to the clean energy movement is shifting to energy-efficient lightbulbs, or maybe agreeing with the management of the hotel when we’re on vacation that we don’t need all of our sheets and towels washed every day. Or maybe we agree to carpool with our office colleagues to reduce our carbon footprint on the daily commute. But how many of us are willing to invest $10,000 in the clean energy revolution?

It’s one thing to make a huge investment in a status symbol such as a Prius or Tesla. It’s another thing entirely to make a huge investment in something the Joneses in our neighborhood might never even see unless they’re up on their roofs.

Of course, there are a number of questions about whether “big box solar” will ever go mainstream. For one, the climate naysayers will still try to convince shoppers that global warming isn’t  a problem and that it isn’t worth spending nearly $10,000 on a DIY solar energy kit for the home. No doubt, the China-bashers will work themselves into a frenzy, furious that IKEA is using solar panels manufactured in China rather than panels manufactured in the good old U.S.A.

And, when it comes to figuring out what kind of impact the move to DIY solar might have, even the experts concede that the macro-level impact on the energy grid of shifting to renewable energy is difficult to determine. In the best case, if you add lots of wind and solar power to the grid, there could be significant cutbacks in the number of carbon-dioxide emissions from the grid —  maybe even by as much as 44 percent.

However, the really innovative idea is that solar energy can be exported around the world as part a flat-pack kit to people in developing nations. You don’t need to “ship air” when you’re shipping flat-pack pallets. And what if we get China — the supplier of all those solar panels — to buy into the clean energy revolution? The DIY solar energy model may not be appropriate for some countries (including, yes, the U.K., which seems to get more clouds than sun), but could be an energy bonanza for developing nations in places such as Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, where sunlight is abundant and where there is substantial need for clean, cheap energy to power the next generation of economic growth.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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innovations | October 9, 2013