Data and Solar: A Horse-and-Carriage Marriage
In any other industry, nine years of service would designate a greenhorn, but in solar it is the term of a veteran in the industry. My exposure to the world of solar began when shifting from traditional contracting to overseeing solar installations in Ontario’s green energy market in 2009. Since then, I have enjoyed serving over 1,000 different installations across both Canada and the United States and am currently a founding partner at Intelligen.energy, a firm supplying local and regional solar integrators with access to solar finance and development funds in the US.
Those of us who were present at the early days of solar’s rise (2008-2009) spent a lot of time speculating on the value of solar to a utility customer and backing up our speculations with Excel sheets and formulas we hoped were correct.
We speculated on production values and on the life cycle of equipment. We speculated on utility data and offsets and values to building owners. The speculation was made from educated estimations and was, in many aspects, a very serious endeavor. We knew we were pitching lifetime value and could not afford to oversell the case. We used the tools available to us at the time and in the absence of industry standards sought to set our own with integrity. Our early estimates actually undervalued solar benefits, leaving out any demand charge reductions and conservatively forecasting future solar production.
As the market began to heat up and as national players jumped in, numbers got competitive. Companies not-to-be-named overshot on future energy escalations and aggressive estimations we cited. For those observing the data, we noticed that the impact of solar on demand varied greatly by utility customers, and reputable companies were often at a competitive disadvantage, not wanting to perjure themselves by overstating their case.
Then, starting in 2014, a variety of tools began to emerge allowing for a more sophisticated approach to evaluating the impact of solar in a given situation. One tool that emerged that year was Energy Toolbase, a platform that allowed solar integrators to import interval data in 15-minute segments and compare the data to the same 15-minute intervals of solar production for an advanced minute-by-minute view of solar’s impact on a customer. Recent additions have allowed integrators to add storage and demand management options in theory and calculate the impact on demand data and consequent utility charges to the consumer.
Early adopters of solar believed inherently in the technology and were pleased with our attempts to quantify values, but as we moved to the middle market, consumers were looking for solutions that embraced the whole picture, meaning not just energy production, but energy management. This meant that products took a second seat to data. The right data tells the right story and the right story ultimately determines product fit and function.
States and utilities have also begun requiring energy assessments as prerequisites for utility interconnection agreements and access to incentives. In response, solar integrators have begun to regularly ask for interval data instead of just monthly energy bills. This has created some difficulty as most consumers are unaware of the existence of interval data and many utilities are hesitant to yield it.
Data platforms like Urjanet fill a growing and vital role in the industry by helping integrators and financiers like Intelligen.energy quickly determine the fingerprint of a company’s energy profile and design both product and behavioral solutions for controlling and reducing utility costs.
As the data is understood and applied at greater levels, it can also be used to design feeder-specific and utility-specific solutions for energy storage and demand management. In reality, when solar integrators look at and understand interval data, they are seeing and understanding what the utilities see and understand, resulting in greater coordination and cooperation. A relatively untapped market exists for future services and the intersection of data and solar is a relationship just getting started.
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