When consumers realize their solar energy systems aren't working as expected, they don't always call their installers for help.
In fact, Pacific Gas and Electric, the California utility with the most residential and small commercial installations in the state, has found itself getting calls from people about faulty systems even though the utility isn't responsible for monitoring them.
"People don't monitor their systems or go out and check to make sure the inverters work," said Chuck Hornbrook, senior manager of PG&E's solar and customer generation group. "They get a bill from us and they owe us money. It didn't work out the way they thought they would. Then they say, 'Why didn't you tell me?' "
Hornbrook provided that anecdote during an interview at Intersolar North America in San Francisco last week, and it pointed a critical customer service issue that will likely grow as more people embrace solar energy.
Federal and state incentives are making solar more affordable, which in turn has launched many new companies for serving the residential market.
"Most of them today are done by mom and pop installers. So it was three guys with a system on a piece of paper and pencils and a spreadsheet," said David Mohler, Duke Energy's chief technology officer, who talked about his experience seeing a 3-kilowatt system installed on the roof of his home during a solar power conference last October. "They had to run back and forth to the hardware store."
Providing good customer service after the system is in place will be important, too. Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity, a Foster City, Calif.-based installer, said choosing an installer with good service records could be difficult. There are roughly 700 installers nationwide, and about 250 of them are in California, he said during an interview a few months ago.
"We get a lot of calls from homeowners who have solar systems and want us to go out and see them, and we say, 'Why don't you get your installers to look at them?' " Rive said. "They say, 'We left many voicemails and we couldn't get them to respond.' "
Hornbrook said it's natural for frustrated consumers to turn to their utilities if they can't get in touch with their installers.
"What happens when the installer goes away? Are you going to turn to a company that been around for 100 years or a company that no longer exists?" Hornbrook said.
Consumers also will have to learn more about how they could monitor solar energy systems effectively. That will require educating them about using new technologies. And getting the general public familiar with these new technologies can often take years.
Homeowners who have signed leases or contracts for other financing options with their installers might be able to rely more on their installers to monitor their systems regularly. The installers in those cases own the systems and are responsible for operating and maintaining them.
More companies see opportunities in developing more sophisticated monitoring software.
Makers of inverters typically offer monitoring software along with the hardware that converts the direct current from the solar panels to alternating current for use at home and for feeding the grid.
Companies such as Energy Recommence and Fat Spaniel Technologies also provide hardware and software for consumers to monitor their systems.
Increasingly, developers of smart grid technologies are looking at integrating the performance data of a solar energy system with the energy consumption data their software could collect from meters and home appliances (see Tendril Wants to Link to Solar Panels).
And who knows, the utilities might get into the business of repairing or replacing their customers' faulty solar energy systems in the future.
"People might call us about replacing panels, and maybe we will do that and create a business out of it," Hornbrook said. "It's like lighting your pilot light. We do that now."