Friday, May 6, 2011

Avoiding Silent Failure in Solar Installations

As appeared May 5, 2011 in SmartPlanet.

By Andrew Nusca

SunReports is a San Francisco, Calif.-based company that manufactures monitoring systems for solar energy installations.

SmartPlanet caught up with chief executive Tom Dinkel to discuss why this part of our smart energy infrastructure is surprisingly off-grid — and why an unmonitored installation can actually use more power than it generates.

SP: Tell us about SunReports’ market.

TD: SunReports serves the broad solar market in two halves: solar photovoltaic, which is small and sexy, and solar hot water, which is not-so-sexy but the larger of the two.

We focus on the residential level. There are 66,000 systems installed in California in PV; less than five percent are monitored, which is just nuts. Traditional monitoring companies are too costly and too complex [for the average homeowner], so they just don’t have traction in the residential space. I know this from first-hand experience, because I was at [renewable energy management company] Fat Spaniel.

It has to be incredibly simple and incredibly easy to install for installers. The price point has to be low enough so that an installer won’t even consider doing a system without having monitoring on it. We’re well under the $1,000 mark now.

The PV market, we estimate there are about a million installed systems around the world. The hot water markets we estimate about 45 million systems around the world. Most are in China.

It’s interesting that the person who is most interested in energy is least served by the smart grid. In California, they use net metering for measuring the solar arrays on the roof. The smart grid doesn’t touch the net meters. The person who is most interested is unable to see what’s going on. There is no data.

SolarCity has their own monitoring thing; SunRun has their own monitoring thing. But they have not optimized theirs, and I’d be happy to talk to them about it.

The hot water space is completely underserved by monitors. We’ve spent most of our energy serving this market, and have established distribution in the space.

Our efforts so far have been to touch as few people as possible to get the very maximum reach we can obtain. Mostly OEMs.

SP: What happens when we don’t monitor solar installations?

TD: The failure of the system is very quiet. There’s no smoke, klaxon horn, no flashing lights.

The problem is that you still have power — for hot water, you still are taking warm showers — but your solar generation system could be down weeks or months before you notice. That’s not a very good return on investment; that would be zero.

The homeowner gets a bill. They might notice that their first bill is a little higher than normal, but they pay it. The second month that it’s out of whack, it’s “Honey, why is this bill so high?” You’ve just wasted more energy than the thing costs.

We know for sure that over the course of the system — these panels live 25 years plus, inverters live maybe 8 or 10 years — you’re going to have one, probably two inverter failures. I would want to know when my inverter has pooped out.

It’s ironic: you’ve spent more on your solar array than your [Toyota] Prius, but there’s no dashboard on it.

Installers in California are required to provide a 10-year warranty on these systems. But they have no risk mitigation strategy. So we give them one dashboard, one Google Maps-based portal, where they can see their entire installed base. They can manage their entire installed base by exception.

It’s a really useful tool.

SP: How do you get installers to bite?

TD: It hasn’t been particularly hard. The hardest thing has been getting word out that the technology exists. Traditional monitoring has a power supply, web server and data logger that all have to get pinned together. The typical installer does not know what a subnet mask is.

We’ve designed a plug-in process. Our most common call from the field is, “I just did this really quickly, did I miss a step?”

The solar hot water guys have never thought of solar monitoring. The solar panel guys generally don’t unless they’re vertically aligned. It’s the inverter guys that have baked-in solutions. Where it falls down is when the customer calls. A visit by a repairman costs more than my product does.

SP: You attended a solar conference in January in New Jersey. Tell us about it.

TD: It was called Networked Solar, which is cute, because solar is about the least-networked thing on the planet.

Utility representatives were concerned that there were things on their distribution grid that were not in their control. For a utility to not have command-and-control is pretty terrifying. It goes against their grain. The information we get from the inverter is one-way, but it’s a two-way pipe.

This was the first conference I’ve heard of or attended where this was actually a topic.

The smart grid is more than just automating meter reading. It should be about managing your own power, especially for people who care.

There are two huge gravitational pulls that we experience on a daily basis: the smart grid and the home automation network. We can operate with both, but we’re not reliant upon either.

It’s sort of a hole in other people’s strategy. I think that we will be acquired by a larger player in either of these markets. Somebody will have to own that. It could be an existing player or someone who sees that we have a chip on a board that looks like a networked device and maybe it’s a Cisco or an Intel. I expect that we’ll get gobbled up before we’re too long down the road.

SP: What’s next?

TD: Software and hardware. We get asked all the time, “I can see my PV system, but what’s my load in the home? I know what I’m generating, but I want to know what I’m consuming.” Innovating to see consumption in the space. I don’t see many products I like in the home energy monitoring space.

The home energy guys are trying to satisfy a market that nobody cares about yet. The average energy bill in this country is $3 a day. Nobody’s going to save $1.30 a day. It’s just not compelling.

If installers were able to better demonstrate the performance of these panels, the decision will be less scary.

I’m currently batting .400. We’re just taking the installation business to the next level.

SP: What’s your ratio of residential to commercial customers?

TD: For numbers of installs, it’s 80 percent residential. In terms of megawatts…

SP: But you make your money on the number of installs, not megawatts.

TD: Exactly.