Solar for Commercial Customers: Poised for Growth?
While utility-scale solar and residential rooftop solar have experienced explosive growth in the past five years, the market for solar on commercial buildings has been much slower to take off. The US Department of Energy is working with innovative entrepreneurs to spur growth in this sector. As more solar installers begin targeting the commercial sector, a more pragmatic problem-solving approach is needed to gain the trust of commercial customers.
|John Powers, Founder and CEO
of Extensible Energy
John Powers, founder and CEO of energy technology innovator Extensible Energy, is developing a new technology to regulate and automate commercial energy usage patterns. This software will function to control the energy usage of subsystems in a commercial building. The technology will increase and decrease electricity usage as needed, in response to varying solar output and grid conditions. The software-as-a-service (SaaS) installation will ease the integration of a more solar resource into the grid.
Here are some of the most important lessons that Powers has learned from his career in solar that he wants emerging leaders to know.
Help readers get to know you. What led you to the world of solar innovation?
Powers: I am a long-time energy nerd. I spent 30 years in energy consulting companies and energy software startups. My focus was energy efficiency, demand response program design, and evaluation. I started working with solar in an even bigger way through a Department of Energy award. I have always been interested in the load profiles of electricity customers, and I specialize in helping utilities manage their customers’ usage patterns. Knowledge of customer load profiles can improve commercial solar adoption rates, as the economics of solar adoption are more favorable to the customer when combined with load management.
Tell us about the research you’ve been doing about incorporating solar demand response in commercial communities. How has this space evolved in the last decade?
Powers: We have been conducting extensive research into usage patterns and corresponding technologies that can automate control of energy usage in response to varying solar output. That’s our area of focus at Extensible Energy with the Department of Energy Award—we’re figuring out how to help commercial customers go solar.
Commercial customers purchase electricity through a combination of an energy charge and demand charge. Typically, demand charges are based on the greatest usage of any 15 minute interval in an entire month. Solar is great at saving energy – but not demand. One usage cloud at the wrong time can cause the customer to incur a very high demand charge.
Many solar installers and contractors are not yet focused on this load balancing challenge. Over the last decade, solar has begun to make more economic sense—more now than 10 years ago, solar is commercially viable. As commercial customers demand better economic performance from solar, the solar industry has to deliver on both demand and energy savings. That’s part of the reason there has also been a big upsurge in battery storage for managing electricity loads. Software innovations that help combine solar, storage, and load flexibility will be important in coming years as well. Solar providers who can shift from selling panels to delivering more complete energy solutions – solar and storage, hardware and software – are the ones who will do well in the commercial sector.
Why is energy load balancing such an important area of interest from a research and infrastructure perspective?
Powers: The ability to control energy loads in buildings without significant human intervention or expensive hardware has been a major goal of the building energy management industry for a long time. The challenge is that management systems and control vendors, to date, have not been tied particularly well to solar technology.
It is essential that research now focus on a software-driven system that can save both energy and demand at the same time. This capability will help both customers and solar installers maximize their returns on investment. The technology is challenging to develop, however. There is a need for strong forecasting and control algorithms to self-direct and automate changes in building energy usage patterns. Customers should not need to intervene manually to make minor adjustments to their operations.
We’re envisioning an algorithm that runs every minute and looks at buildings holistically, across energy subsystems, including current usage and forecast solar output. The proprietary algorithm can anticipate changing solar output, and adjust the loads of various energy subsystems to prevent unwanted spikes in demand.
What are some trends that you’re seeing across your involvement in Cleantech Open?
Powers: I like serving as a mentor for companies participating in the Cleantech Open because there are many overlapping areas of innovation between companies. The startups in that program are innovating not just in energy but in agriculture, water, recycling, international applications and more. These organizations are tackling some of the most pressing challenges of our time, and they’re having an impact in markets around the world.
One company, for instance, is building solutions to minimize downtime in residential solar sites by maximizing connectivity with equipment. It’s not uncommon for solar companies to lose contact with up to 20% of their residential sites at any given time. This company is delivering an innovative networking solution that should cut that problem by at least an order of magnitude at very low cost; that means higher solar productivity and better economics for solar companies.
What are some trends that you expect to pick up in the future?
Powers: We see solar and storage component prices continuing to drop. Communications and networking sensors are becoming less expensive and easier to implement. Machine learning in commercial applications, including energy management, is becoming more practical. All of those trends are converging to point to greater options for more economical load balancing offerings.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Powers: It’s an exciting time for the energy sector. Keep your eye on new solar tech. Look for opportunities beyond hardware, to use software to maximize output. Department of Energy support is a strong signal for continued improvements in software that supports the solar industry.
Final Thoughts from Boviet
Looking to learn about innovative solar applications in your industry? Get in touch with Boviet’s consulting team. We’re here to help.