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Interior 'skylight' offers homeowners affordable renewable energy

HEALDSBURG - Andy Smith and his team at RenCon Energy have developed a solution for those that want to bring sunlight into a windowless room but are reluctant to cut a hole in their roof: the Solectric Skylight system.

[caption id="attachment_14763" align="alignright" width="252" caption="RenCon Energy founder and president Andy Smith shows off his solar "skylight.""][/caption]

The former design engineer for Hewlett Packard and Agilent Technologies has combined LED and solar technology to produce an interior "skylight" that homeowners can install themselves. It will debut at the Friedman's Home Improvement Home & Garden Show later this month.

"For a long time I've wanted to design a product that would utilize renewable energy while promoting conservation and one that would be affordable by the average resident," said Mr. Smith.

Hence RenCon Energy: renewable solar plus energy-saving LEDs.

Current LED lighting fixtures are generally designer pieces and run upwards of $200, he said.

And solar installations are beyond the scope of many homeowners both in price and complexity.

"Lots of people would like to utilize solar energy.  My idea was to give them a product they can buy and install without hiring an electrical contractor," said Mr. Smith. His systems, including one photovoltaic panel, two 10-and-a-half-inch wide LED lights, wires and brackets, will cost $299, slightly more than a tubular skylight but much cheaper and easier to install.

In the early morning when the sun is low, the PV panel produces a low current, which corresponds to a low light level from the LED fixtures. As the sun moves higher in the sky the current increases and so does the LED output.

RenCon will sell a battery storage kit to homeowners who want to store solar electricity to use the lights after dark, but since the LEDs burn only seven watts per light it makes more sense to run them off the house current, he said. He'll offer a $30 kit to make the connection.

"Initially we'll supply a list of recommended local handypeople if purchasers don't feel they can make the installations, but this was always intended to be a consumer product for people who want to make small improvements to their homes," he said.

Once Mr. Smith had a prototype working and a patent pending, he set about to build a company.

Another former Agilent engineer, who graduated from and is now teaching for Dominican University's Green MBA program, put him on to a couple of talented recent graduates, Jonathan Mooney and Allison Shrier. Mr. Mooney is now RenCon's vice president of marketing and Ms. Shrier its vice president of operations.

The company currently operates out of Mr. Smith's Healdsburg garage, capitalized by about $55,000 from friends and family.  He'd like to raise $100,000 to set up manufacturing and distribution channels, perhaps with a small business loan.

"Right now the local angel groups are concentrating on companies they've already funded, rather than putting money into a new startup," he said.

Meanwhile, he's taking advantage of local resources, including the Santa Rosa Junior College's Sawyer Center for marketing expertise.

RenCon will have a chance to judge customer response at the Home & Garden Show, which runs Sept. 18, 19 and 20.

According to Friedman's Home Improvement Vice President of Merchandise and Marketing Tony Corsberg, the RenCon Solectric Skylight system was chosen because it's energy-saving and locally produced.

"We carry flush-mounted LED lights and tubular skylights, but we've never had a product like RenCon's. At $299 I'm not sure how it will resonate with customers. The price is comparable to a skylight, but it might cause sticker shock," he said.

The team at RenCon is in the process of developing lower-cost products, including recessed LED fixtures for $40 to $50, said Mr. Smith.

"We don't want to be a one-product company," he said.

Florescent tube replacement with LED and recessed LED lights show lots of potential, and Mr. Smith is eager to develop a solar thermal system that can be purchased and installed for less than $2,000.

"Current systems run about $4,000 to $5,000. There's a huge opportunity there that hasn't been tapped into," he said.

For more information, visit www.renconenergy.com.