ConnectDER, a startup with a smart meter socket device that’s been deployed in the thousands by select U.S. utilities to support distributed solar, has closed a $7 million series B round round to help roll out a new version of its system targeting behind-the-meter batteries and plug-in electric cars.
This week's round was led by Clean Energy Ventures, Skyview Ventures and Avista Development, the unregulated arm of Pacific Northwest utility Avista. The round brings the Arlington, Va.-based startup's total funding to date to about $11 million, including a $1.1 million Series A in 2017 and about $850,000 in funding from early-stage sources including the Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative.
ConnectDER’s role with SunShot was to tap the potential of the meter socket — the round hole where the typical North American meter plugs into a building’s electrical system — as “an underutilized asset for onboarding DERs to the grid,” CEO Whitman Fulton said. Distributed energy resources primarily refer to rooftop solar panels, but DERs can also include behind-the-meter batteries, plug-in electric vehicles, smart appliances or home energy controls.
ConnectDER’s solution is a meter collar that plugs in between the meter and the socket, with metering, data-collection capability and computing power commensurate with the latest generation of smart meters. This allows utilities that haven't yet deployed smart meters to gain the visibility into minute-by-minute operations of solar systems and other DERs.
Not surprisingly, most of ConnectDER’s customers have been utilities that haven’t yet deployed smart meters or are in the early stages of rolling them out. Out of the roughly 5,000 of ConnectDER’s first-generation products that have been deployed to date, about four-fifths have been in Vermont, where utility Green Mountain Power and the state’s residential solar industry have been driving fast growth in DERs, he said.
ConnectDER’s device costs about $400, but for solar installers, it can save thousands of dollars in equipment and electrician-hours with a simple and easy-to-install device. For utilities, it’s a way to please their customers, Fulton said.
ConnectDER’s device doesn’t just replicate a smart meter, though. “There are a couple of things we can do that are custom-designed for DERs that meters can’t do,” he said.
For one, unlike utility smart meters, the collars can monitor the “masked loads” behind the meter, including solar’s contribution to its changing load shape from the perspective of utility grid operators.
Second, ConnectDER isn’t doing the computation- and bandwidth-heavy “cash register” tasks that are a smart meter’s primary purpose, he said. That frees them up to collect, analyze and communicate more data more quickly about what’s going on with behind-the-meter DERs.
That’s where ConnectDER’s new “smart” product comes in. “We’re providing plug-and-play metrology that’s not only utility grade but also high resolution,” he said. “We have this nexus. What else can be layered on to that footprint, in terms of metering, monitoring and controls?”
Behind-the-meter batteries and EV charging were the obvious answers. “We’re going to continue to scale up solar and that business line,” he said. “However, there is a more natural opportunity to pivot to utilities for EVs and storage.” Many utilities are grappling with how to meter those loads and facing customer and industry backlash for programs that require significant additional metering costs.
ConnectDER’s new generation of smart collar, set for unveiling at next week’s DistribuTech conference in San Antonio, is built to accommodate those functions. “We can add a bunch of additional metering points. We have a bunch of computing power to do analysis. And we have this ‘dongle’ that goes back to the utility that can now get utility-secure AMI access down to the inverter point” for solar, battery or EV chargers, using private Wi-Fi to bridge from the collar to in-home devices.
To date, the startup has deployed about 1,000 of the latest-generation meter collars to select utilities including Hawaiian Electric and Texas municipal utility Austin Energy, and it has orders for about 4,000 more, Fulton said.
Avista, a new investor in ConnectDER, has played an outsize role in incubating utility technologies that have since grown to dominant status in their fields, including smart meter vendor Itron and efficiency provider Ecova (now Engie Insight). In a Wednesday statement, Mark Gustafson, director of innovation and strategy at Avista, said the company is “already working on a few ideas” with ConnectDER “that we believe can give utilities access to new products and services to better serve our customers.”
Fulton wouldn’t comment on what those ideas are, beyond saying that Avista “sees the value in the EV piece and the solar piece,” as well as “leveraging additional utility services using the footprint within our collar” for broader DER integration.