Clear and Present Data: Utility data is kept in the dark, but these providers are shedding some light

utility data

Solar customer data is increasingly being used for quantifiable savings by solar installers, developers, energy arbitrators and utilities. The software companies specialized in gathering and aggregating this data on residential, commercial and industrial levels are also building more functional systems that will help to standardize energy efficiency and asset management platforms, beneficial for all levels of data use.

Solar data usage is contingent on customers’ willingness to share their data with the local utility, which is no small hurdle for the industry, suggests Matt Kuo, the vice president of product at Atlanta-based Urjanet. “Initiatives like Green Button are great, but adoption has not been as rapid as many people expected. That’s why we exist,” he says.

The Green Button initiative is “an industry-led effort that responds to a White House call-to-action to provide utility customers with easy and secure access to their energy usage information in a consumer-friendly and computer-friendly format,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

While such standards are slow to emerge, companies like Urjanet and UtillityAPI independently contact users for data sharing permission, aggregate and clean the data, and often manage the utility-to-customer-to-developer interface.

Urjanet, which launched its solar-specific service, Utility Data for Solar, in May, has access to residential and commercial energy usage, cost and location data from more than 750 electric utilities in over 15 countries, Kuo says. By offering on-demand, accurate and complete energy usage, cost and location data from more than 900 utilities, Utility Data for Solar aims to bring an automated, streamlined process to existing and emerging solar markets worldwide.

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Solar installers typically spend a lot of time analyzing utility data for a potential residential customer, drawing on historic usage, rate thresholds and grid connection scenarios. With access to a solar data service, this information can be delivered rapidly and at a low cost, says Daniel Roesler, the co-founder, CEO and CTO of UtilityAPI. His company provides comprehensive data on a single meter for a mere $15 one-time charge, with ongoing meter reads at $2 each. “We only charge if we can get the data back within 24 hours,” he says.

RELATED: Accelerate the solar sales cycle with automated utility data

“With utility data on the backend, a solar installer can access a prospect’s actual address, electric usage, costs and tariff,” Kuo says. “This means that, before even sending someone to the property for a site visit, the installer can assess system size, project customer ROI and determine whether they’re a good candidate for solar. With this information in hand, installers can expect more efficient sales cycles and, ultimately, higher revenue.”

On the commercial side, solar developers not only need to present a cost/benefit analysis to potential customers, but also to analyze the feasibility of a low-cost grid connection, dependent on data about local substations and other utility infrastructure.

“We’ve done about 200 commercial applications over the last four years, yet the number of projects that are actually getting through utility review is only about five percent,” says Tim McDuffie, the director of engineering at CalCom Solar, based in Visalia, Calif.

Merging residential and C&I customers into a community solar development can be even more challenging without detailed solar data and grid availability knowledge. Since community solar projects often include energy storage — if not grid service arbitrage — historic information is needed to launch the project, and ongoing data is needed to manage it.

“We can pull in ongoing utility data for a customer, match it with performance data and calculate true savings — not some savings estimate. This is especially necessary for battery systems,” Roesler says. “Then for the asset management side, our data reporting can be fed into their performance analytics for real-time reporting and future action recommendations.”

Working with regulators

As distributed energy resources proliferate, utilities increasingly must balance decisions about future infrastructure investments as they transition from electricity generators to wires-and-poles companies. Both regulations and software advances will help in the broader use and analysis of solar data.

California’s Public Utilities Commission, for example, is now studying a ground-breaking set of regulations for demand response providers that eventually will apply specifically to solar and other renewable energy forms.

“We wrote the technical standard for a data access platform for demand response as part of one working group,” Roesler notes. “In Hawaii, 30 percent of daytime electrical generation is from distributed resources, but there is not much communication going on between the DERs and the utility. Over time, utilities will want to talk more.”

Since utilities can avoid the cost of new generation facilities by coordinating DER emergence on their grid, they can readily afford to spend many more dollars on more sophisticated software to perform the latter. Such software can be expensive when adapted by a single vendor for a unique utility need, but platform standards in solar data software are now emerging.

UtilityAPI won a grant last year from DOE’s SunShot program for a version of the company’s proprietary software product that a utility could access by 2019. “Then utilities, munis, commercial aggregators and asset managers can acquire the software by licensing,” Roesler says. The grant project is titled “Software for Automatic Utility Data Collection for Solar Proposals,” which provided the company with a $763,000 grant conditioned on an awardee cost share investment of $1.15 million, according to DOE.

The smart home factor

 

As energy management software migrates down from complex utility solutions to residential- and commercial-level tools, the opportunity for calculating real savings through the use of solar data is massive. “We are seeing a lot of traction in the home automation space, especially with smart thermostats,” Kuo says. “Looking at a smart thermostat, a customer can get a monthly energy savings calculation, but that is not tied to the actual dollar amount of savings. We believe that smart thermostats will bridge that gap.”

While such standards are slow to emerge, companies like Urjanet and UtillityAPI independently contact users for data sharing permission, aggregate and clean the data, and often manage the utility-to-customer-to-developer interface.

In the not-so-distant future, Urjanet will also take smart home calculus beyond electricity, to include gas, water and perhaps other utilities as the company has data from some 5,500 electric, gas and water utilities, primarily across North America. A home energy dashboard that could help a customer determine whether to use electricity or gas for a given energy need at a specific time will save on household costs more holistically, Kuo says.

Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer covering solar energy from Northern California.

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar customers can easily share their utility data with this new Urjanet program

solar customer acquisition

Wider, transparent access to utility data will be crucial for growing the solar industry, and Urjanet, already a leader in utility data aggregation, is making things even easier for solar installers with its new Urjanet Solar Quickstart program.

This suite of web-based tools streamline the link between customer utility accounts and on-demand access to residential and commercial electricity usage, cost and demand from nearly 1,000 electric utilities across 26 countries. With this powerful new toolkit, solar providers can personalize and streamline their customer experience, accelerating solar sales and scaling their business growth.

“The solar customer acquisition process is time-consuming and expensive,” says Sanjoy Malik, CEO of Urjanet. “By automating and streamlining a crucial part of the process, Urjanet can save time and money for both installers and consumers.”

What’s new here?

Customers want and expect products personalized to their needs — and they’re willing to share their information to get it. Urjanet’s Solar Quickstart program was developed with this in mind. Residential and commercial buyers can easily and securely share their utility bill history with solar providers to ensure accurate solar installation pricing and design based on their individual energy use and cost information. The Solar Quickstart program introduces two new tools:

• Urjanet Connect: a plug-and-play UI toolkit enabling solar buyers to link their utility accounts directly from the utility to the solar provider – fully automated and secure, no paper or manual processes required.

• Urjanet Console: an intuitive web portal for solar providers to monitor and access data in real time, with utility data available for instant viewing, CSV export, or PDF download.

“Urjanet is bringing a manual and cumbersome process into the 21st century. We expect this solution to transform how we engage with our customers as we aim to provide them with the best possible experience,” says George Mori, President and Co-Founder of SolAmerica.

— Solar Builder magazine

Accelerate the solar sales cycle with automated utility data

solar sales utility data

The Trump administration’s 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels represents a significant obstacle for the U.S. solar market. SEIA predicts that the tariffs could reduce this year’s domestic solar growth by 18 percent, and could lead to the loss of 23,000 jobs. But one game-changing innovation could give solar firms just the edge they need to attack the tariff: we’re talking about utility data.

What can utility data do for your bottom line?

Accelerate the sales cycle

According to Eric Reinhardt, Sunrun senior director of software product management, it can take from three to six months for solar customers to go from the initial consideration of a solar panel installation to an actual completed project. Automating as many things as possible throughout that process ensures a closed deal and a happy customer.

Today’s sales cycle is so long, in part, because it’s time- and resource-intensive to evaluate prospects that are a good fit. With utility data on the backend, a solar installer can access a prospect’s actual address, electric usage, costs and tariff. This means that, before even sending someone to the property for a site visit, the installer can assess system size, project customer ROI, and determine whether they’re a good candidate for solar. With this information in hand, installers can expect more efficient sales cycles and, ultimately, higher revenue.

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Simplify the customer experience

While simplifying the customer experience drives the sale itself, it continues to improve customer satisfaction afterward. According to Velocify Research, when it comes to solar sales, contacting prospects within a minute after a lead is generated increases lead-to-sale conversions by nearly 400 percent. In contrast, contacting them within five to 24 hours only increases conversions by 17 percent.

Utility data can help to speed up the process of putting together and returning a quote to not only keep prospects engaged, but also produce a quantified effect on sales. Rather than asking a customer to dig through and upload 12 months of utility bills — or worse, manually enter monthly estimates of usage and cost — installers can simply ask a customer to link their utility account to automatically provide the information directly from their electric utility provider.

Build brand trust

The solar industry hasn’t always had a sterling reputation with consumers. “There’s a common association that many homeowners have with solar,” says Luke Richardson, digital marketing specialist at EnergySage. “It has to do with pushy door-to-door solar sales reps that pressure consumers to sign a 20-year solar contract before they explain the full scope of the offer or the credibility of the solar company.” Utility data can help here, too, by providing the opportunity for solar installers to generate accurate, trustworthy cost estimates.

Building proposals on actual data, rather than estimates, results in savings for the homeowner that live up to expectations. Installers can use utility data to show homeowners that they understand their specific circumstances and are confident about the actual benefits a solar installation will provide. Not only will using accurate data enhance the credibility of an individual installer’s brand, but it will also enhance trust in the solar industry as a whole, supporting long-term solar revenue growth.

This administration’s solar tariffs will inevitably hurt the industry. That’s an economic fact. But, armed with the right tools, solar firms of all sizes have the power to fight back. With utility data, installers can continue to grow their customer base, establish brand awareness and trust, and cultivate revenue streams – now and well into the future.

Matt Kuo is VP of Product Management at Urjanet.

— Solar Builder magazine