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Solar power for the do-it-yourselfer

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Joel Koyama | Minneapolis Star Tribune

Mouli Vaidhyanathan, President of Mouli Engineering, stands in front of a home in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the homeowner had installed two of his company's SolarPod panels.

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An entrepreneurial engineer has brought the assemble-it-yourself concept to solar power.

The SolarPod developed by Mouli Engineering of Eagan, Minn., comes with four solar panels and related parts, including a rack, that its developer says are no more challenging to assemble than furniture from Ikea.

“Two guys can put that thing together in an afternoon,” said Nick Tamble of HGVids, who assembled one for a how-to video on a retail website.

The basic model — enough to run a refrigerator, TV and a bit more when the sun shines — costs under $4,000, and is eligible for a federal tax credit and possibly other subsidies that can bring down the cost.

“Solar was expensive until SolarPod came along,” said the product’s inventor, Mouli Vaidyanathan, founder of Mouli Engineering. “Now, SolarPod is leading the way in plug-and-play and modular solar. Nobody in the world has a product like ours.”

Two key parts of the SolarPod, the solar panels and control boxes known as inverters, are standard products made by other manufacturers. Vaidyanathan designed a plug-and-play wiring harness to connect them, along with a custom mounting rack.

The wiring harness and rack are made by a contract manufacturer in Minnesota, and the entire package, including solar panels and inverters, is shipped on a single pallet to the customer’s installation site. No part weighs more than 60 pounds, Vaidyanathan said.

The assembled SolarPod is designed to be mounted on the ground or a flat roof, and plugs into a special socket to feed electricity into a home or business. An electrician must install the socket, similar to that for a range, and the wiring to the circuit breaker box.

If the SolarPod owner wants to sell excess power back to the grid, a two-way meter must be installed by the local power company. The system is designed so that multiple SolarPods can be plugged together to increase electrical output. It would take four to eight units to power a home, the company says.

Mouli Engineering also offers a higher-priced SolarPod for off-the-grid use, such as at a remote cabin, that features battery storage. The company’s mid-priced “Heartland” unit is entirely U.S.-made. The basic model has parts from Asia.

Vaidyanathan spent most of his career in the computer industry after getting his doctorate in metallurgical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1993. When he lost his job during the depression five years ago, he turned to consulting — and solar energy.

“I love to engineer stuff. I love to fix problems,” he said. “I have two daughters and I want them to breathe clean air, drink clean water. I feel by doing this, I am contributing in my own little way to the choice to make energy more sustainable.”

Founded in early 2011, the company is approaching its 100th installation, Vaidyanathan said, and he expects SolarPod revenue to hit $250,000 this year.

He operates as a one-person “virtual company,” with everything else contracted out.

Most sales have been outside the company’s home state because the structure and paperwork requirements for Minnesota solar subsidies often present a barrier to the product, he said.

Vaidyanathan said standard solar arrays cost more than a SolarPod because they are individually designed and installed by contractors. He said many SolarPod purchasers choose to have an electrician assemble and install their system. Even then, he added, labor costs can be lower because the system is quickly put together.

One other benefit of the SolarPod is that it’s available to people who embrace renewable energy but don’t have a lot of money to spend.

“If you like it, you can later add more,” Vaidyanathan said. “If it is not for you, you have not invested that much.”

1 image

Joel Koyama | Minneapolis Star Tribune

Mouli Vaidhyanathan, President of Mouli Engineering, stands in front of a home in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the homeowner had installed two of his company's SolarPod panels.

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