SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) --It may be the only piece of technology you ever buy that creates electricity instead of using it. The latest solar panels are on display at the InterSolar North America conference in San Francisco. This year it's not about the panels themselves, but about what people are doing with them.
They may be the world's funniest looking race cars.
"Carbon fiber frame with solar panels on top, it's padded with foam and they go really fast," said high school senior George Jouflas.
Jouflas is the reigning champion of Solar Rollers.
"They take on a project like this and learn about solar cells, lithium batteries, working with carbon fiber, all those things," said Solar Rollers creator Noah Davis.
Built from scratch, they go 28 to 30 miles an hour and only briefly stop to charge under blinding lamps that were originally made for a marijuana grow house. The contest could soon go international.
"And then it'll be interplanetary eventually if we can make it," said Davis.
The sun can move lots of things -- like one day, a public transit system.
"And move people with the energy that they're sitting underneath," said Inist.org project manager Sam Ellis.
Here, it's not just about making more power, but using less.
"You don't want to have rubber tires on an asphalt road," Ellis said. "You want to have steel wheels on a steel rail."
Rails guide a robot from Qbotix that races around, adjusting solar panels.
"Just like sunflowers to follow the sun," said Qbotix founder and CEO Wasiq Bokhari. "And by doing so it's producing up to 45 percent more energy from the same solar panels."
But by far the biggest challenge for the solar industry is just getting these panels onto people's rooftops. Buying solar for your house can be daunting. Now, a Bay Area company's trying to change that. Not with new hardware but with new software.
Oakland-based Sungevity is putting iPads in Lowe's hardware stores, with satellite images of every Bay Area neighborhood.
"So that people can actually see real life system designs sitting on their roof," said Sungevity Chief Technology Officer Steve Atherton.
Tell it where you live, and the software figures out where the panels go and how much power you'll actually generate.
"We look at the surrounding buildings and we look at the surrounding trees and obstructions, and figure out how much shade those obstructions actually put onto the roof," Atherton said.
That leaves one more hurdle.
"It takes about eight hours to install a solar system from start to finish," said Bernadette Del Chiaro with California Solar Energy Industries Association. "But it can take up to six weeks to get that same system permitted through your local government."
A bill in the state assembly could fix that; a change worth singing about.