Soon after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, electronics giant Sharp started working on home energy management software to alleviate Japan's shortfall in nuclear energy production.
In 2011, the long-time manager of Sharp Labs of America, Carl Mansfield, was thinking about building a product for controlling batteries in the U.S. The software designed for Japanese homes offered many of the same controls and predictive capabilities his team would need -- so it became the basis of Sharp's foray into storage.
The small team at Sharp Labs adapted the software for commercial-scale battery systems, while also forging partnerships with Samsung for batteries and Ideal Power for power electronics. In 2012, Kirk Stokes, a long-established solar executive, was brought on board to build the business case for Sharp's new product, called SmartStorage.
For Stokes, the greatest challenge wasn't building a product. It was creating a battery management service that included performance guarantees, warranties and operations services.
"My mantra was, 'It’s not just about the technology; it’s about bankability,'" said Stokes in an interview on the sidelines of the Energy Storage Association's conference this week.
Sharp unveiled its behind-the-meter storage offering last July after testing a 30-kilowatt, 40-kilowatt-hour system and a 30-kilowatt, 80-kilowatt-hour system at a commercial site in San Diego. The system is designed both for standalone storage and for batteries combined with PV.
Stokes said that the SmartStorage system offers three attributes that are still new to the market: a strong warranty backed by Samsung, 10 years of operations and maintenance (O&M) services, and a monthly performance guarantee backed by Sharp.
"We’ve now got this 10-year asset management service. Sharp is putting itself on the hook to make sure the system operates reliably," he said. "This is really an O&M story."
Although Stokes stressed the unique nature of the service, on paper it looks a lot like offerings from leading behind-the-meter battery installers Green Charge Networks and Stem.
Those two companies have pulled in $170 million in funds to finance leased projects. All of Sharp's customers are paying cash for their systems -- which only includes six commercial sites thus far.
Stokes said that Sharp has 300 qualified leads through its partners. "That pipeline will start to break free when we get some financed options."
When will the company start to match the millions from its competitors? Stokes said financing deals could be announced soon, ranging from leases to property-assessed clean energy.
In the meantime, Sharp is building a small network operations center to monitor the storage systems that partners install out in the field.
The company's near-term focus is on solar companies that want to pair batteries with PV installations in California to reduce demand charges. The reason, said Stokes, is that paired projects allow storage to qualify under the 30-percent federal Investment Tax Credit -- a needed subsidy to avoid California's self-generation rebate program, which tends to be depleted quickly.
It's unclear whether that single strategy will hold up if the tax credit for commercial drops to 10 percent in 2017, as it is currently slated to do. But the SmartStorage system is designed to control batteries for other applications, including frequency regulation and, eventually, backup power when it adds islanding capabilities.
"As other revenue streams and demand-response programs emerge, we will be ready for them. We feel good about where we're at in terms of cost and performance," said Stokes.