Solar energy is largely a hardware business – the stuff of solar cells, photovoltaic panels, inverters, and power-plant sized arrays. But the solar boom is also spawning a solar software market as rooftop systems become an industrial-scale supplier of electricity to corporations ranging from Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) to Estee Lauder and Wal-Mart (WMT). Call it greenware – software that lets companies that install, own or operate huge rooftop solar arrays to go online and monitor their perfomance. Green Wombat recently chatted with Chris Beekhuis, founder of Silicon Valley startup Fat Spaniel Technologies, about the growing demand for greenware and how it can boost the efficiency of solar systems and, in the Web 2.0 era, serve as interactive tool for homeowners and consumers. The San Jose company’s software monitors solar energy systems at more than 500 locations around the world. That allows the operators of solar arrays installed everywhere from the Loma Linda, California, City Hall to a Seventh Day Adventist church to a home in Ranch Mirage to go to Fat Spaniel’s site and see real-time data on how much solar power is being generated and consumed.
"It raises awareness of energy usage," says Beekhuis. "We see customers putting into context their green energy versus what they’ve been getting from the grid. Homeowners will go around and find out what’s using so much energy at particular times." In other words, if you notice your solar panels produce maximum electricity during certain hours of the day, you might start to run energy-intensive appliances during those times.
Such data is even more crucial for companies. It all comes down to power and money. Commercial rooftop arrays are multi million-dollar investments that are increasingly financed and operated by third parties – a SunEdison or MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA) – that must keep tabs on systems scattered across the country. These solar companies own the systems and sell the electricity they produce back to the rooftop host at a fixed rate, meaning that optimizing a solar array’s performance is crucial. And where marketable renewable energy credits are associated with a solar installation, such data can prove valuable in proving to regulators the project’s green energy production. "They want to be able to forecast and guarantee performance," Beekhuis says of his clients. "But it is very difficult to monitor those remote sites. We have an installer in Southern California who is approaching 100 installations. They can see a problem online and then go out and fix it. They leave a door hanger that says, "I’ve improved performance of your array.’ " For instance, online monitoring lets the installer notice if a growing tree is shading a panel, interfering with its performance.
Here’s how it works: Fat Spaniel sells a package that includes a software license, hardware and a monitoring subscription service. A device at the solar installation site keeps tabs on the system’s performance, transmitting the data over the Internet via a wireless modem.
Beekhuis sees Fat Spaniel expanding into the energy efficiency market as well. For instance, just this week Macy’s announced
a deal wth SunPower (SPWR) to install solar arrays at 26 of its
California stores in conjunction with energy efficiency upgrades to
lighting and heating and cooling systems.
"On the commercial side there’s a great value in green marketing," he says. "We’ve talked to some very large firms lately looking to reduce overall carbon footprints. This is a tangible way to monitor their efforts."