When Danny Kennedy, Andrew Birch and Alec Guettel decided to launch a solar startup two years ago, their goal was simple: to spread solar globally. But turning that towering dream into reality was another matter altogether, and not just because the world is a big place.

Kennedy, a former Greenpeace campaign manager; Birch, a longtime photovoltaic expert; and Guettel, a social entrepreneur, concluded that a big deterrent to outfitting every rooftop with solar panels is the financial sting for homeowners.

Their answer? Make it easier and cheaper to order and install solar panels. Their method? Use the Internet and satellite imaging to design customized systems remotely, eliminating costly pre-installation "man-on-the-roof" visits. Call it cyberspace meets outer space.

Apparently, their futuristic approach to sun power is paying off — even with the economy in shambles. Berkeley, Calif.-based Sungevity, which launched last year on Earth Day and boasts 25 employees, is well on its way to dominating the California market (its present territory). Right now, it ranks No. 7 in the state for small residential systems and No. 1 in San Francisco.

"We've experienced a really gangbuster first year, with 164 systems sold," says chief marketing officer Kirstin Hoefer. "Winter might have been a little softer because of the economy, but spring sales are coming back at a pretty good clip. A lot of people are realizing that the rate of return on solar is actually upwards of 20 percent if you have a big electricity bill. That's looking a lot more dependable than, say, the stock market."

Hoefer credits the company's virtual sales approach for the strong showing. Consumers simply go to Sungevity's website, type in their home address, and a satellite view of their home (using Microsoft's Virtual Earth) pops up. They answer questions about their roof and average electricity usage, and within a day Sungevity sends them an iQuote, detailing three or four solar options, financial benefits such as how much each option will reduce their electricity bill, environmental benefits and technical specifications.

"We're the only ones doing this for a firm quote," Hoefer says. "We look at satellite imaging and flyover aerial photography, then determine the size of your roof, the tilt, etc. with patent-pending technology, and design the system at our office. We don't send anyone to your home and end up passing on the savings — usually about 10 percent."

Even with Sungevity's technological efficiencies and government incentives, including a 30 percent federal tax credit, a California state rebate of 10 percent and additional city incentives, going solar isn't for the financially faint of heart. Sungevity systems still cost between $7,700 and $30,000, depending on size. The good news is that the benefits begin immediately with trimmer electric bills and higher home resale values. Another bonus: a slimmer carbon footprint. According to Sungevity's website, the average solar system cuts 36 tons of carbon during its lifetime — the equivalent of not driving 227,733 miles. Multiply that by millions of systems worldwide, says the company, and you put a serious dent in carbon pollution.

Undoubtedly that’s one reason why Sungevity hopes to become a central player in a world gone solar — but not by blanketing rooftops from Minneapolis to Mumbai all by itself. Rather, Sungevity is offering its high-efficiency, cost-effective "solar sales platform" to installers across the globe for a fee and a cut of sales.

The company is previewing three preferred California installers, which will boost its statewide coverage to 65 percent. "We hope to cover 100 percent by the end of the year," Hoefer says, "and add other states and possibly European countries in 2010." Not bad for a small company with big dreams of global (sun) power. 

Solar panel company harnesses Web power
California-based Sungevity cuts costs by letting homeowners customize their systems online with satellite imagery of their rooftops.