By Brian O'Keefe, assistant managing editor
FORTUNE -- If all goes according to plan for NRG Energy, solar power will soon be the hot new thing in shade.
At Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference this week, the power generation and utility company previewed an innovative new product that it is calling the Solar Canopy -- essentially a gazebo with solar panels on top.
NRG Energy (NRG) CEO David Crane says that the company will begin selling the Solar Canopy by the end of the year in four sizes: large and small models for both residential and commercial use. Pricing has yet to be finalized.
"This isn't the product launch yet," says Crane. "This is to get people thinking about the fact that there are options beyond rooftop solar."
Crane says the canopies will come in five different types of finishes -- the better to fit in with the design aesthetic of your patio or pool.
Conference attendees who wandered into the courtyard of the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, Calif., the site of Brainstorm Green, were able to take a break from the bright southern California sun by sitting under a basic demonstration model of the residential "mini" canopy that is 14 feet by 15 feet, and 10 feet tall, with eight solar panels on top.
The mini is expected to generate 2.4 kilowatts of energy, or enough to offset about one-third of total energy usage for the average house. The large commercial model -- which could, for instance, be set up outside a convenience store -- will generate almost three times as much power.
The canopy units will supplement the power that customers' homes get from the grid, and can be set up to operate as replacement power in individual homes if a storm or other event knocks out electricity.
Indeed, the inspiration for the Solar Canopy came last fall, says Crane, when Hurricane Sandy left thousands of households in New Jersey without electricity for an extended period, including many of the roughly 18,000 who have installed solar panels on their roofs. The standard setup for residential panels doesn't allow them to be used until the grid is repaired and operational.
"We said, 'We need solar, we need it distributed, and we need it to be wired so that it will work even when the grid is down,'" says Crane. "We want to give people some grid autonomy."
NRG's solar canopies will be installed so that, under normal circumstances, the power generated by the panels will be fed into your home or business. If all your needs are met, the system will then try to sell power back to the grid. If the grid goes down, an inverter will keep, say, your refrigerator on using power generated from both the solar panels and stored in batteries.
The Solar Canopy units will be manufactured by Sunora Energy Solutions, a company in Phoenix that is 50%-owned by NRG.
Crane believes that the ability to build prefabricated canopies on a large-scale could allow him to drive the cost down over time to his goal of $1.50 per watt.
That would be good news for both NRG and its customers. And the shade on a sunny day will just be a bonus.
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