Someday soon, every home with solar panels on its roof is going to come with its own energy management system to track how much its daily electricity use is being powered by the sun versus the grid -- and showing how to optimize that mix to meet monthly budget or environmental impact goals.
At least, that’s what Energy Aware is hoping. On Tuesday, the Vancouver-based home energy startup announced that it’s now integrating solar support into its Neurio Home Intelligence platform, a combination of hardware and software aimed at integrating in-home energy demand -- and now, supply -- into a single analytics and presentment platform.
Energy Aware, which has been providing its PowerTab home energy displays and dashboard services to a host of U.S. and Australian utilities, launched a Kickstarter campaign for its Neurio platform last week. The $150 piece of hardware is built to install at a home circuit panel, and from there uploads real-time energy data to its cloud-based platform, to be “disaggregated” to separate energy use from individual appliances and systems in the home via data analytics.
On the hardware side, the Neurio appears much like other home power sensors like those on offer from The Energy Detective or Blue Line Innovations. Its disaggregation capabilities, in turn, are similar to those being promised by startups such as Bidgely, Verdigris and Navetas, or through technologies being developed Intel Labs and Belkin, via its acquisition of startup Zensi.
Now, by adding solar PV output monitoring to the mix, Energy Aware is hoping to deliver solar-equipped customers a deeper understanding of how self-generated power, household energy usage, and utility rate structures and time-of-use programs intertwine.
“There’s a lot of information to be learned by this," Ali Kashani, Energy Aware’s vice president of software, said in an interview this week. “First, you could just track performance of the system you’ve put in,” something that solar power meters from the likes of Locus Energy and Itron can now provide.
But while solar monitoring tracks panel and system performance, it doesn’t easily integrate into homeowner energy usage data on a real-time basis, he said. Adding whole-home and appliance-specific energy monitoring could “open a lot of new use cases,” he said.
For example, homeowners could learn whether it’s better to run major appliances during sunny midday periods or after dark, depending on the varying costs of grid power versus payments they’re receiving for net-metered solar energy. Or, they could apply that same whole-home energy supply-and-demand analysis to determine which of a number of utility rate structures will be most economical, based on long-term trends.
“We have been working with a number of solar companies, even before we launched Neurio,” Kashani said, though he wouldn’t name any of those partners. “There’s a lot of interest in this, because they are all trying to differentiate themselves.”
Of course, Energy Aware is far from the only green technology player that sees the potential in linking energy-smart homes and rooftop solar. Managing the interplay of distributed generation and energy efficiency at the residential level is the goal of utility pilot projects across the globe, featuring a multitude of different technology configurations. Likewise, home energy management is increasingly part of the offerings of major rooftop PV aggregators such as SolarCity, Sunrun and others.
SolarCity, which already closely monitors its customers’ solar systems for its own purposes, added home energy audit software to its solar finance and installation business with its 2010 acquisition of Building Solutions, and in 2012 started extending funding for home improvement projects in partnership with Admirals Bank. In May, SolarCity told Greentech Media that it was expanding its software efficiency evaluation capabilities.
Rival third-party solar providers are quickly moving to catch up. In September, Sunrun started offering free smart thermostats from Nest Labs. At the same time, Nest, which has been beefing up its utility demand response partnerships, started offering a $500 credit to customers interested in solar from Sunrun, an example of the solar-efficiency convergence coming from both directions.
Another example of the home-automation-to-solar trend comes from Vivint, the home security and automation startup bought by private equity firm Blackstone Group for $2 billion last year, which has quickly surged to challenge SolarCity on the residential solar front. (Blackstone has also been buying and renting out homes across the country, as this article from The Atlantic points out, giving it big incentive to own and manage a company that adds amenities and lowers costs for its tenants.)
But as Kashani pointed out, there’s a big difference between adding up the net energy balance between solar PV output and home electricity consumption and actually measuring both systems at once. Taking the latter approach not only allows a clear view of just how much energy is coming from solar panels versus the grid, but it also provides a cleaner stream of data for analyses of the kinds that Energy Aware is hoping to provide for customers, he said.
This is a challenge for utilities, as well. Most utilities don’t have any way to measure direct solar output from customers’ homes and businesses and rely instead on net-metering measures. While solar inverters can supply information if equipped with communications links to do so, most haven’t been enabled to do that, since it adds extra costs to solar projects already competing on price for customer wins.
That fact could make capabilities like these of use to partners on the other side of the meter, whether it’s utilities looking for clearer data on solar-equipped customers’ demand profiles or smart grid vendors seeking to integrate that type of functionality into their own suite of offerings. Again, we’re likely to see much competition on this front, as the rise of rooftop solar pushes utilities and customers alike to find ways to merge their capabilities on the edges of the grid.
Don't miss the annual U.S. Solar Market Insight Conference in San Diego this year. The two-day event will take place December 10-11, 2013 and features speakers from FERC, NRG Solar, SEIA, GTM Research, Jinko Solar, and more.