When you think of the future of solar power, think of cellphones. They went from being a novelty to ubiquitous in a decade. The same is going to happen with solar.

That's the prediction of Danny Kennedy, longtime environmental activist, formerly a campaign manager with Greenpeace, and now president of a solar company that's upping the ante in the world of solar energy.

Sungevity launched in California two years ago and hit the Arizona market last month. The premise of Kennedy and his staff is that there's way too much focus on further developing the hardware and technology, when what matters is getting the products to customers.

Sungevity's approach is what you might call armchair solar, the same point-and-click business model that makes Netflix, Amazon.com and iTunes so successful. Homeowners can obtain a free quote for photovoltaic panels for their roof, plus estimated savings, by typing in their address and details of their electricity usage. The company uses satellite and aerial imagery to give a virtual example of what the panels will look like, all within 24 hours. Contracts are signed online too, with electronic signatures.

And in cutting out the sales visits, says Kennedy, two things happen: The company saves money, which it passes on to customers; and it attracts people who were interested in solar but never had the time nor inclination to go about garnering quotes and information.

Through a partnership with U.S. Bank, Sungevity offers a lease agreement with no money down over 20 years (in Phoenix the lease time is 10 years).

Jennifer and Michael D'Oliveira from Phoenix expect to save a minimum of $67 a month on their electricity bills after they've installed panels through Sungevity. For them, buying a system outright was simply unaffordable, says Jennifer, who also liked the fact she could talk to customer reps after-hours (they are available 12 hours a day).

"We talked to one of the sales representatives late on a Wednesday night. If I wanted to sign the documents at 6 in the morning I could, and that's what I did."

And while Paul Huddy , director of the Solar Institute in Tucson, deems the business model "interesting," he says he has reservations. He takes issue with Kennedy's assertion that the modules used are not as important as getting the product out there in the marketplace. A 20-year lease is all very well but is worth nothing if a company goes bust, he says.

"They do make this (process) very simple and that's good. But every house they go to is unique in some respects, even where you have a new development," points out Huddy.

There's also the issue of the savings: could they go higher if more panels were installed? In a hypothetical quote obtained by the Star (see separate box), the savings were almost offset by the monthly payment for the system.

"Your system is optimized around a number of things - roof size available for install, as well as your load and what rate structure you're in," said Tom Suiter, a Sungevity spokesman. "There are a number of factors, such as a relatively small roof, or shade obstacles, or maybe the tariff you're on would not make it economic to install more panels."

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How it works

• Cost of installing Sungevity Solar System panels on a hypothetical 1,800-square-foot home in Tucson: $17,256.

• Monthly payments over 20-year lease: $48.

• Average monthly electricity usage in kilowatt hours: 1525.

• Monthly utility savings: $57.

Did you know

In a genius publicity stunt, Sungevity has worked out a solar quote for the First Family and the White House. It has also challenged California's gubernatorial candidates, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, to go solar, providing them with their own projected savings. Now, it has its sights set on doing the same for an Arizona politician. For more information go to www.sungevity.com

Contact Gillian Drummond at gcdrummond@aol.com or check her blog at www.gilliandrummond.net for more on the interviews with Kennedy and Huddy.