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A clever way to collect residential energy data

A SolarCity Installation As Earnings Figures Are ReleasedA SolarCity Installation As Earnings Figures Are Released
A SolarCity employee installs a solar panel on the roof of a home in Los Angeles in May 2014.Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon — Bloomberg/Getty Images

At first glance, SolarCity’s new MySolarCity application, which debuted in Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play marketplace on Thursday, looks like a clever customer engagement, referral, and social networking tool. A neat real-time energy tracker with sharing functions, sure, but nothing to write home about.

The app’s true value, though, is in its ability to capture data from the solar services company’s (SCTY) 168,000 customers in 15 states. Those data analytics capabilities have far-reaching implications for solar generation and how well it integrates into the power grid.

SolarCity, the largest installer of residential solar systems in the U.S., is on a mission to make energy generated by rooftop solar systems a meaningful piece of the nation’s power grid. But as solar generation increases, the grid will become more sensitive to the renewable energy source’s variability. Solar’s growth could be stunted if it doesn’t play nice with the rest of the grid.

For instance, if a cloud suddenly passes over a solar installation, production will drop temporarily, explains Peter Rive, the company’s chief technology officer. This isn’t a remarkable occurrence when solar makes up a small percentage of the energy grid, but SolarCity wants solar to reach 15 percent to 20 percent of the grid in the next decade.

Once that happens, certain questions arise for the cloudy situation outlined above: How frequent is the cloud event? How much energy is being used? Is there a way to curb consumption at that time? “If you can capture data like this across SolarCity’s installation footprint, it could be used to ensure the net effect of the cloud passing over wouldn’t be felt by the grid,” Rive said.

The application has five components. Among them: PowerGuide, which shows real-time home energy production and use, and EnergyExplorer, a feature derived from software from Building Solutions, a home energy audit company acquired by SolarCity in 2010.

EnergyExplorer performs about a million calculations per household to get an in-depth look at the source of energy use and potential loss. A SolarCity employee collects information, including the make and model of appliances, during the initial site survey of a home. The original purpose of the site survey was to inform the design of the solar system, says SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass. The company soon realized it could spend an extra two to five minutes adding in appliance, HVAC, and other home data to obtain an incredible amount of insight on energy use and loss without any additional cost to the customer.

“It’s sort of a marriage of big data and energy service.” Bass says. “We’re able to capture a lot of information about energy usage and loss across the country. It’s really useful data for us.”

The app can also been seen as a step towards the connected home, Rive says. When SolarCity installs panels on a rooftop, a network is established inside the home with a gateway that connects directly to the solar power system and the customer’s electrical power. It uses a type of low-power wireless networking technology called Zigbee, the same smart home standard used to control many automation devices.

“As new devices come online, we’ll be able to integrate with them,” Rive says. And then the energy data will flow.