Midwest Values: How to identify market opportunities outside of solar hotbeds

A good starting point for identifying an advantageous solar market is to look at the average retail cost of electricity. For behind-the-meter (BTM) solar projects, high retail electricity prices enable solar project economics to look more attractive. The opposite is also true. Low prices make it hard for projects to pencil out. This is a primary reason why the Midwest rooftop solar market has lagged behind other regions of the country that have experienced more rapid growth.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is a great resource for sourcing impartial information on energy costs throughout the country. EIA publishes a monthly report which shows the average price of electricity for each state by sector of use. Below is a summary of EIA energy cost data for the five biggest Midwestern states, in comparison to California, the leading BTM solar state in the country.

energy toolbase

Looking at the average retail electricity price by state provides a high-level filter for identifying viable BTM solar market opportunities. But the statewide average blended rate does not tell the full story. In order to really pinpoint tangible customer opportunities, we need to look at both the utility level and rate tariff level. It is not uncommon for there to be a wide amount of variance between different rate schedules within a given state. For example, the average residential cost of electricity could be 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, but specific rate schedules could range from under $0.10/kWh to over $0.20/kWh.

retail electricity prices

It’s also important to point out that the average cost of electricity is not the same as the average blended savings of a solar project. When it comes to quantifying how much solar is worth, average blended savings, which is sometimes referred to as the value of solar, is the truest representation of value. The calculation for average blended savings is very simple: first year dollar savings divided by total first year solar production. This expresses the value of solar on a $/kWh basis. We published a video tutorial entitled “How to Accurately Calculate the Avoided Cost of a Solar Project,” which explores this concept in depth.

Accurately calculating the value of solar for a specific customer requires good software. This is especially true in instances where the utility rate tariff is complex, like a rate schedule that has time-of-use (TOU) rates, demand charges or an inclining or declining block structure. Energy Toolbase specializes in objectively quantifying the avoided cost on complicated rate structures. Our software platform is used by solar companies of all shapes and sizes in markets throughout the United States to accurately and transparently determine savings for a given customer. Let’s look at two rate schedules in the state of Illinois.

illinois rate schedules

The Ameren Illinois Co. rate schedule features a declining block structure, meaning the energy used above the 800 kWh threshold is priced at a lower rate. Assuming a high usage customer of 1,250 kWh month of usage, Energy Toolbase calculated the customer’s average blended cost of energy at $0.114/kWh. Assuming an 11.2 kW DC solar system, which offsets 90 percent of annual kWh usage, the value of solar is calculated at $0.102/kWh. Note: In a deregulated state like Illinois, be mindful of which entity is billing the generation supply charge, which will affect the customers’ $/kWh volumetric energy rate.

The ComEd, BES-Medium schedule is a typical C&I rate in that it has $/kWh energy, $/kW demand, and $ fixed charges. Assuming a customer uses 10,000 kWh month and a peak demand of 50 kW, Energy Toolbase calculated the customers average blended cost at $0.108/kWh. Assuming an 80 kW DC rated solar system, offsetting 80 percent of annual kWh usage, the value of solar would come in at $0.079/kWh.

These are two generalized examples. Other customers on these same rates could have very different average blended cost and value of solar calculations, especially if the $/kWh generation supply charge was meaningfully different. Therefore, when searching for favorable market opportunities we recommend running several sample projects to establish the range for both cost and savings.

Adam Gerza is the COO of Energy Toolbase, a software platform for modeling and proposing the economics of solar and energy storage projects. To learn more about Energy Toolbase and sign up for a free trial, visit www.energytoolbase.com.

— Solar Builder magazine

PV Pointer: How tile hooks factor into safety, noise prevention, long-term leak protection

Quick_Hook

The two most common approaches to mounting PV arrays on tile roofs are “standoff” posts and tile hooks. Standoff posts tend to be stronger due to their simple column loading design, while tile hooks use a cantilevered loading configuration (think diving board), which deflects under wind and snow loading. A strong tile hook can be a great solution, and tile hooks have become the most common tile mounting method due to their lower cost, simpler installation process and attractive appearance since most do not need a visible tile level flashing.

However, not all tile hooks are created equally. Tile hooks come in two varieties: 1) structurally robust hooks, which cost a bit more, and 2) inexpensive bent metal steel hooks.

Structurally robust tile hooks are an excellent option for securing a PV array to a tile roof. These hooks typically feature a stiff aluminum cross-sectional design that minimizes cantilever deflection during heavy wind or snow events in an effort to protect against hook-to-tile impact damage. These structurally robust hooks are dimensionally sized to ensure sufficient “serviceability clearance” under the hook.

Inexpensive bent steel hooks have limited upward/downward load capacity. They often sit close to or right on the tile underneath. Even if the hook is adjusted to sit above the tile, these thin bent steel hooks are often too weak to deflect more than 10 to 20 lbs of downforce from causing contact with the tile. When winds reach critical speed, the entire array can chatter on the roof. This chattering noise is alarming and disconcerting to the homeowner, but bigger problems can arise over time as the impact of the weak hooks break tile, allowing excessive rainwater to flow underneath the tile. Since the underlayment is the ultimate waterproofing for a tile roof, this exposure to excessive water can accelerate degradation, ultimately leading to roof leaks.

RELATED: Residential Rooftop Report: How Microflashing leads to solar install savings

Wind driven rain will always find its way uphill between the tile and drip onto the deck, so the official tile flashing requirements found in the Tile Roofing Institute (TRI) Installation manual requires that all penetrations through the roof deck be flashed at the underlayment level. For example, the Quick Hook from Quick Mount PV includes a hooded underlayment flashing which protects the lag screw penetrations from rain water when sealed to the deck using underlayment bibbing or three coursing with asphaltic roofing cement and a reinforcing fabric. Some inexpensive bent metal hooks with vertical height adjustment have sharp corners that rest on the underlayment when adjusted to the fully downward position. These sharp corners dig into the underlayment at the point where the wind driven rain drips down onto the underlayment, and a flashing cannot fix this vulnerability.

Trimming the tile’s weather guard lug is a mandatory step to ensure the tile sits back down in its proper position. Some installers skip the tile trimming process, believing that the thin bent metal hooks are so thin that trimming is not required. However, when the lugs are not trimmed, the tile sits up on top of the tile hook, creating a ½-in. to ¾-in. gap between the tiles. This gap allows even more wind driven rain to reach the underlayment. Trimming the tile lug usually only takes 30-60 seconds using a “tuckpointing” diamond blade on a grinder.

A word of caution: OSHA has recently started enforcing a ban on dry cutting of tile due to silicosis risks. These new regulations regarding silica exposure require wet cutting of tile. To avoid dry cutting, installers are turning to metal Tile Replacement Flashing (TRF), which is a replacement for tile trimming altogether and an easy solution for OSHA compliance. Another benefit of using the TRF is that with every flashing installed, you have a matching tile left over to replace any of the tiles broken during the installation process.

Cutting corners with thin hooks and non-compliant deck waterproofing is a recipe for future leaks. Choosing a strong tile hook and flashing the deck-level penetrations using TRI-compliant flashing methods protects you and your customer’s roof. Your customers will thank you for years of leak-free performance.

Jeff Spies is senior policy director for Quick Mount PV.

— Solar Builder magazine

Growth Profile: How J&B Solar and Electric built its Florida-based solar business

installing solar

For many opportunistic entrepreneurs, the solar industry is an enticing place to start a business. There is a demand for sales teams and installers to help expand the reach of solar. However, too often, those individuals do not have solid business plans and burn out quickly, doing more harm than good for the industry.

The success story of how Josh Bessette, owner of J&B Solar and Electric in Cocoa, Fla., created and grew his solar integration company is different. As a second-generation solar contractor, Bessette grew up in the industry and understands the finer details of the business, and when he saw the opportunity to create and build a business, he took it.

“I guess you could say solar is in my blood,” Bessette joked. “The family business was established in 1974 and primarily performed residential and small commercial work. At the time, there wasn’t the opportunity to chase utilities or large-scale commercial projects in the Southeast; the demand just wasn’t there.”

After college, Bessette got his contractor’s license and continued to work for his family’s business until his father sold it. Soon after, he moved into a sales role for an organization that provides solar panels, racking and modules to residential, commercial and utility-scale contractors, as well as developers.

Seeing opportunity

During his time as a solar contractor, Bessette spent a lot of time studying the large utility-scale solar projects occurring in California, Arizona and Nevada. “It always intrigued me; I wanted to be a part of that side of the industry,” he said. “So, when solar demand evolved in this part of the country, I knew it was my time to make a move.”

In October 2013, Bessette started building J&B Solar and Electric. “Working with contractors, I saw there was a need for quality integrators,” Bessette said. “I already knew a lot of the companies in the area and had the experience that would set us apart from other startups. I knew it would take a lot of hard work, but I knew with the right help, I could build a business that would stand out.”

RELATED: How solar installers can build business through third-party programs

Getting established

Building a business in the solar industry takes financial resources, patience and the commitment to do it right.

“The solar industry moves quickly these days,” Bessette explained. “There are a lot of product innovations that claim to install faster or better than the competition. And to be honest, a person really must spend time evaluating everything and not just take a salesperson’s word for it. It’s those types of decisions that cause so many young organizations to put themselves out of the business before they really even start.”

J&B Solar and Electric spent time researching the equipment they needed to be successful and took on a lot of projects that were demanding with short timelines. “It’s that mindset that I think helped us gain vital experience,” Bessette added.

Since J&B Solar and Electric didn’t focus on just one type of system, they were exposed to a lot of different solar solutions and environments. Through those experiences in the early years, they understood what equipment and products performed better than others.

“We saw others using installation methods that were slow and inefficient,” Bessette commented. “There were also many other integrators that didn’t invest in their installation equipment and completely relied on rental equipment for every project, which can cause project delays in a specialized field like ours.”

Growth investment

After getting a few years under their belts, J&B Solar Electric made the investment that would take them from just another startup in the solar industry to a top solar installation subcontractor.

“To be considered for the large-scale utility projects that we wanted to work on, we needed to own the equipment,” Bessette explained. “We researched what equipment was available for pile driving, and determined that the Vermeer PD10 pile driver was the right choice for us. It’s efficient, highly productive and flexible — all the qualities you want in a machine. Vermeer also has a responsive dealer network, no matter where we are working, which can sometimes be some pretty isolated areas.”

J&B Solar and Electric purchased its first Vermeer PD10 pile driver in January of 2016, and since have added four more to its fleet. Bessette credits that fleet expansion to customers recognizing how efficient and quickly J&B Solar and Electric’s crews work.

“Even when working with a variety of soil types or racking systems, there are attachments for the PD10, like different guides for pile sizes as well as an extraction system, that helps us finish projects faster than other pile-driving methods used in the industry,” he added. “If we need something for the PD10, it’s a phone call away. Vermeer has been a great partner for our small, but growing business.”

Scaling up

Running multiple crews now, J&B Solar and Electric still primarily works in the Southeast but has also been asked to work on solar projects throughout the country, including New Mexico, Texas and Montana.

“Long-term success in the solar business means being able to quickly go where the work is,” Bessette commented. “Originally, North Carolina was where the action was, but now we’re doing a lot of work in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. The people developing these solar farms want to get the work done right away so they can take advantage of federal and state tax incentives. To do that, we need to be responsive and ready to get to work when they are ready.”

The design of the Vermeer PD10 pile driver is a major benefit when J&B Solar and Electric must travel long distances for a project. “So much of the other pile-driving equipment we looked at required each machine to be trailered separately,” Bessette explained. “We can fit multiple PD10 units on a single trailer, which helps reduce our expenses and gets us started on projects faster than our competition.”

Vermeer PD10 units

Bessett says he can fit multiple Vermeer PD10 units on a single trailer, which reduces expenses and gets projects started quickly.

Future growth

Currently, J&B Solar and Electric has crews working in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi assembling solar farms up to 25 MW in size. Their crews are responsible for surveying sites, unloading trucks, checking inventory, driving piles, installing racking systems and mounting modules. J&B Solar and Electric has also recently expanded its services into performing electrical work.

Bessette said the reason for the company’s recent expansion is to be a better resource for their customers. “The more we can do on a project, the easier it is for our customers,” he said. “We’ve established a great track record on the mechanical side of the business and adding electrical work is the natural next step.”
J&B Solar and Electric established its solid track record on decades of experience and establishing processes that make its crews fast and efficient on projects so they can deliver on time.

Kayla Breja is a marketing specialist – utility, for Vermeer Corp.

— Solar Builder magazine

Products to watch: 9 customer service, proposal tools for the solar installer

solar installer customer service

The main components of a solar system, at this point, have been figured out. Module efficiency is higher than ever, inverters are more reliable and it’s tough to imagine more cost-effective and complete racking systems. So, what’s next? Storage? Sure, that’s coming at some point. Solar + storage + EV charging stations will be as common as air conditioning, and we’ll all be pushing buttons to create instant food like on the Jetsons. Heck, things will be so advanced, I’ll even have a reference to replace the Jetsons.

But in the meantime, the big opportunities for streamlining costs and improving lifetime system performance are in project modeling and monitoring. Finding, designing, pitching and selling systems in a streamlined way, and then extracting as much value out of that system as possible.

Luckily, there is a ton of innovation already in these areas. We rounded up a few platforms and products that might add that extra value to your process or save that extra Valium by easing your pain.

Aurora Solar SmartRoof

aurora solar smart roofAurora Solar Inc. is a fast-growing, cloud-based solar PV design and proposal software that is used to design over 12,000 new solar projects per week across the globe. Its latest creation is SmartRoof, a tool that allows anyone to accurately and easily model residential and commercial sites for solar projects. SmartRoof can intelligently infer the internal structure of a roof after a few clicks.

What’s cool about it?
Using the software, solar installers can just outline the perimeter of the roof and the software will automatically infer the rest of the roof’s structure. Aurora seems to have thought of everything, like quickly dragging and dropping dormers into the model and integrating them into their respective roof planes seamlessly. The remote site modeling tool enables designers to insert folds and intersect multiple roof structures, making modeling of complex roof structures significantly easier. This allows designers to create a permit-ready 3D model in less than a minute. In fact, its remote design and shade analysis tools are so accurate and reliable that several rebate authorities allow Aurora reports to replace measurements collected through a physical site visit and inspection, such as the Connecticut Green Bank, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Energy Trust of Oregon and a bunch more.

Continental Control Systems’ WattNode Meter

continental control wattnodeContinental Control Systems has designed a new meter module for mass production, the WattNode Meter, customizable for OEM metering design. Revenue-grade accuracy is obtainable using the CCS Accu-CT family of split-core current transformers.

What’s cool about it?
The WattNode Meter Module is a bidirectional networked energy meter offering energy measurement parameters such as energy (kW), power (kWh), voltage, current, demand, kVAR, kVARh, power factor, frequency, etc. These energy values are communicated using the Modbus RTU communication protocol over RS-485. The meter utilizes any external mounted or PCB mounted 0.333 Vac current transformers. Available as single- and three-phase modules, the meter is externally (instrument) powered from 12 to 24 Vac (isolated) or 6 to 24 Vdc. One model can measure 120 to 600 Vac, single-phase or three-phase, wye or delta services to measure bidirectionally, energy production and energy consumption. Available with a DIN rail mountable enclosure, the meter module is customizable, also available as a PCBA for imbedded energy measurement applications. The meter module is designed to be a low-cost customizable OEM meter. Cost reduction options such as no LEDs, no enclosure and component reduction for single-phase operation, are customizable examples that lead to a cost-competitive, high-accuracy meter for solar and energy storage applications.

Canvasser, by CutterCroix

cutter croix canvasser

With do-not-call and anti-spam laws in effect, it has made it difficult for companies to run direct marketing campaigns to reach potential customers. Canvasser, by CutterCroix is a mobile solution empowering organizations to streamline, optimize and take command of neighborhood campaigning efforts helping facilitate door-to-door prospecting, a $28.6 billion industry.

What’s cool about it?

  • Be more strategic in your campaigns and make data driven decisions using smart knocking and property data including homeowner, property and financial information.
  • Works on and off line, and is sensitive to data plans and battery consumption, to optimize its use in the field for extended periods of time.
  • Makes data collection a breeze and allows you to add custom questions to capture the data you want to collect to qualify prospects.
  • Follow-up appointments are scheduled using on-screen drag and drop calendar functions, giving visibility to other team members’ calendars.
  • Dictate notes using voice to text — spending more time knocking and less time typing.

MODsolar open platform proposal

Here’s what we know about selling solar: Inundating customers with too much complex information is intimidating. Also, a slow turnaround can make them impatient and lose interest. This is why the MODsolar platform only includes what your customers really need to know, saving resources and time (yours and theirs).

What’s cool about it?
The MODsolar platform is the solar industry’s first open platform for proposal creation, designed specifically to help regional installers close more deals. The MODsolar platform lets you create proposals in less than five minutes: Bring up a satellite image of your client’s rooftop, place the arrays, select the mounting type, compare different panels side-by-side and provide detailed computations of incentives and financing options. With a few clicks, you can print out proposals or email them straight to your clients while you’re still on the phone.

PayStand

Paystand solar payments

PayStand is a cloud payment suite that helps eliminate some of the largest financial challenges in accounts receivables and payables.

What’s cool about it?
With PayStand, solar distributors, manufacturers and installers, can take payments across multiple channels such as PayStand’s 0 percent network, as well as echeck bank transfers and wholesale ACH and card transactions all in one system. Further, PayStand works directly with invoices, automating financial processes alongside accounting software and ads powerful management and reporting capabilities.

eGauge multi-circuit monitor

egauge multi circuit monitor

The eGauge multi-circuit energy monitor combines a meter, data logger and server all into one. This powerful combination lets you record data for the lifetime of the device and analyze it with a graphical interface for free online. eGauge meters are built to be efficient, reliable and accurate and are made in the United States.

What’s cool about it?
Monitor everything: Measure up to 30 points of energy and power, including solar inverters, generators, battery backup systems and EV chargers. Record electricity with bi-directional current transformers to see which circuits are using or producing power. Track AC and DC power systems simultaneously.

Get analytical: The eGauge user interface displays graphical and numerical data for everything you measure on a web browser. You can access the interface with or without an internet connection (if you’re on the local network). Export data to spreadsheets, view custom time-frame summaries, see energy costs for each monitoring point. If you’re a true data junkie, there’s even an oscilloscope that shows voltage and amperage waveforms in real-time.

Promote your brand: The eGauge user interface has space on the home screen for a custom installer logo, which lets users advertise their installer’s brand every time they show off their solar production.

Stay informed: Send text or email alerts which trigger at user-defined thresholds. Alerts are particularly useful when offering performance guarantee contracts because they allow installers to proactively address problem systems.

PVSketch with PVCAD

pvsketch

PVSketch is used by hundreds of solar companies big and small to visualize solar designs, accurately model energy production, choose equipment, calculate customer energy savings with a detailed database of rate schedules and plop it all into a proposal.

What’s cool about it?
PVSketch is a one-stop-shop for solar project design. The hook for PVSketch is that it requires no training time and is designed for sales teams. PVSketch designs solar projects between 2 kW and 3 MW in size with accuracy in design, energy production and avoided costs calculations. Its functionality on mobile devices allows you to adjust designs on-site in real time with a customer.

PVSketch has a database of racking systems to help installers generate a bill of materials with their favorite racking hardware, modules and inverters, then move quickly on a closed sale by ordering the permit plan set or engineering diagrams delivered to their inbox. PVSketch also has a database of utility rates and tariffs for all 52 states for accurate savings calculations.

In addition, PVSketch can export project data to PVCAD. With PVCAD, engineers and drafters can build detailed permit plan sets including layouts, electrical drawings and bills of materials and quotes for projects of any size, whether rooftop, ground mount or utility scale. PVCAD quickly creates detailed drawing sets including array layouts, structural calculations, single line diagrams and everything else you need to obtain a permit and bid on any project — from a single-family home up to a multi-megawatt solar farm. Having a CAD software with a database of racking equipment allows you to generate layouts, bills of materials and wind zone calculations specific to your favorite racking manufacturer.

Tigo Energy SMART app

tigo energy smart app

Tigo’s latest creation is the SMART app, an asset management and commissioning solution that lets you design, lay out, configure, commission and monitor your PV system all from your mobile device. This app enables you to interface directly with Tigo’s Cloud Connect Advanced (CCA) software via an automatic WiFi Bluetooth connection. Select from more than 2,000 inverter types or add your own on the SMART App. For those installing a lot of Tigo systems already, you can also scan barcodes from a mobile device, troubleshoot system issues on-site and more.

What’s cool about it?
Tigo’s module-level online monitoring app provides system owners greater visibility into module-level performance. System analytics track production, send alerts and proactively suggest maintenance actions to keep systems operating at maximum efficiency. For increased safety, Tigo’s SMART website can remotely power off each module individually, eliminating high voltage for maintenance or safety purposes. The newest updates to the 3.0 version in late January 2018 include:

  • New languages: English, French, German, Chinese (Simplified), Italian, Korean and Spanish.
  • Saved searches: Terms and last position are saved when searched in System List.
  • Saved images: A system’s image are saved and reused once downloaded.
  • New metrics: Year-to-date (YTD) and Lifetime production data metrics are available.
  • WiFi connection screen: UX is more applicable to that of iOS and Android.

Solar-Log WEB Enerest

Solar-Log WEB Enerest

The Solar-Log WEB Enerest App is a new way to view your solar plant data. Powered by the Solar-Log WEB Enerest monitoring portal, this app provides a way to stay up to date on solar PV plant performance on the go, saving both time and money for solar installers and plant owners.

What’s cool about it?
The new premium features and comprehensive, interactive graphics create a convenient monitoring tool to keep plant operators fully informed about the status of their solar PV plants. A single solar plant or several plants can be presented on a dashboard with customized views. The Solar-Log WEB Enerest App can also show current and historical plant data, as well as data from connected components like consumption meters, weather sensors, heat pumps and heating rods. Actual yield can be compared to expected power production according to integrated weather data. This information allows the O&M provider to ensure maximized solar power production and protect the solar PV asset.

Swipe through energy production with daily, monthly, yearly and even lifetime graphs. Visualize home or building energy usage and energy flow to better understand how the energy is being used. Access any plant in your fleet with just one tap.

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar Service 2.0: Identify new service, upsell opportunities with smart home technology

crowd

Solar inverter intelligence and monitoring has evolved mightily over the last few years, from silent rows of capacitors to today’s circuit-programmable, WiFi-enabled guardians of PV arrays. These systems sense minute changes in operation and advise system managers of options, in real time, for energy management and O&M (operations and maintenance). The capabilities of internet-based monitoring platforms also offer an ever wider variety of functionalities, from data logging of production and consumption, to energy storage coordination, to time-of-use or peak rate recommendations.

There is more than enough data for every level of user. “Different roles for installers and system owners ensure that the right amount of data and the right functionalities are available to the right people,” says Richard Baldinger, a spokesman for Fronius USA, which has been evolving not just its product line but its installer base to best use these new bells and whistles to their advantage.

Functionality proliferates

The sum of available monitoring functionalities are difficult to count in one breath. Lior Handelsman, vice president of marketing and product strategy for SolarEdge, attempts the feat:

“PV monitoring platforms now offer a wide variety of functionality such as granularity down to the module-level and entire PV fleet management, automatic alerts, comparative energy graphs [on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis, also including estimated energy], analysis of a module’s power and voltage, performance ratio information, site-level reports on commissioning and maintenance, inverter performance comparison reports, system performance reports, remote operation of the inverter and much more.”

While new functions have emerged, some older functions have been refined of late. “Greater inverter automation and alerts to installers that enable improved and more efficient O&M are now common place,” suggests Stefan Grosjean, the CEO of Kortrijk, Belgium-based Smappee.

One way inverter monitoring functions have grown is with the shift to module-level power electronics. SolarEdge, a pioneer in power optimizers, offers a DC optimized solution that manages and monitors energy to maximize power generation. With such module-specific monitoring, array designers have increased flexibility with array design, including more ability to work around the problem of shading and uneven irradiance.

MPP tracking over time can also help inform O&M considerations. “Detailed data points such as voltages and current per MPP tracker help to identify potential problems in the system. With the inverter being the heart and brain of a solar system, any state or error code shown by the inverter and its monitoring platform help identify errors throughout the entire system,” Baldinger says.

The wealth of module-specific data has brought a substantial shift in the commercial and utility market for inverter monitoring. For example, the increase in information granularity permits more string inverters to be used in place of a central inverter, notes Cedric Brehaut, the executive consultant at San Francisco-based Solichamba Consulting.

“Going one step further in innovation, Huawei is now offering three-phase string inverters with built-in IV curve tracing functions,” Brehaut says. IV curve tracing, which identifies the maximum power point for captured irradiance, is the best way to measure the performance of a panel or an array. Traditionally, IV curve tracing requires on-site work that now is being built into the inverter and accessible remotely via the monitoring software.

RELATED: Strength in numbers: How solar installers can build business through third-party programs

More data more frequently

Beyond module- and chain-specific data, the frequency of data in monitoring has risen to time units of minutes in place of hours or days. This avalanche of data enables monitoring systems to consider utility peak rate or time-of-use rates to curtail the consumption of energy from the grid during higher cost periods.

“By simply visualizing the consumption in real time, the so-called Prius effect can occur, meaning that the raised awareness for energy consumption can lead to changes in behavior and, with that, a decrease of consumption,” Baldinger says. “Consumption monitoring makes energy more visible, and visualized real-time data is more tangible than the numbers on the utility bill.” Fronius recently re-designed its monitoring platform Solar.web, with improved usability and new analysis features for this very reason.

Encompassing data feeds also provide the ability to drive advanced analytics to predict component failure so that O&M can be strategically planned. Advanced analytics involve benchmarking performance against similar plants, normalized for capacity and weather, as well as against a modeled plant that is based on historical operating data and weather conditions. However, such a capability is far from mainstream adoption yet, Brehaut suggests.

“Monitoring software provider QOS Energy reports that only 10 to 20 percent of its clients currently use the benchmarking and digital twin functions built into the platform,” he says.

fronius

Fronius re-designed its Solar.web monitoring platform, improving usability and analytic features.

Customer, supplier relations

As such rich functionality developments add more value to monitoring, the relationship between the customer and the monitoring system provider changes substantially. This new possibility of customer service and interaction is the next big opportunity for the solar industry to evolve.

“Upselling strategies throughout the lifetime of a system make a solar system sale less transactional and more based on long-term relationships, creating win-win situations for both installers and system owners,” Baldinger says.

A solar monitoring platform is the key in this new frontier of customer relationship, lead management and upselling, including opportunities in solar system expansions, storage and energy efficiency.

As Handelsman puts it: “For instance, some EPCs can now offer different levels of O&M services without incurring a significant amount of increased costs.”

That transition requires preparation, though. “Clearly there is an opportunity for installers to sell monitoring and O&M services if they are up to the task,” Brehaut says. “They have to be ready to deliver, despite limited resources; the way that service calls weigh against new installs can be an issue. The ability to view status codes remotely helps a service provider to determine whether a truck roll is necessary or not.

“If we fast forward, when there is a strong economic utility incentive to manage an entire home or business, then monitoring and energy management services become very compelling, so third party operators may find ways to compete with the inverter and monitoring equipment manufacturers to provide service,” Brehaut says. He recently explored the concept in a white paper, “Solar PV Asset Management 2017-2022,” produced with GTM Research. “The advantage is that by monitoring solar, storage and total consumption, some level of automation can be done, though still limited.”

RELATED: Ask a Distributor: We ask distributors for their purchasing advice, products to watch in 2018

Smart home monitoring provider Smappee cautions that basic inverter monitoring and basic smart home management are, at least for now, largely different functions. “Internet-based inverter monitoring is not a substitute for smart energy monitoring. Likewise, today’s smart home energy monitoring systems like Smappee Plus may measure solar PV consumption, but they are also not a substitute for the manufacturer’s inverter monitoring systems. Rather, the two products should be seen as complementary,” the company explains.

Smappee’s latest innovation, Smappee Plus, acts like an energy traffic controller that can automatically steer excess solar energy production to home appliances in order of preference, further increasing a homeowner’s energy efficiency and cost savings. For example, if a consumer is simultaneously charging their EV and cooking on an electric stove, Smappee Plus can control and reduce the power that goes toward the EV until the homeowners finish cooking to avoid fuses from blowing. Afterwards, the car will receive more power again.

“By having an understanding of energy consumption at the appliance level, in tandem with solar generation and storage status, smart energy monitors can further optimize the energy flow locally at the home level, providing great value for use cases such as demand charging and load management maximizing savings,” Grosjean says. “These use cases will be very important in the future as utilities across the United States are implementing demand charging and time-of-use pricing.”

— Solar Builder magazine