What’s driving Solar Analytics’ Aussie and US growth
Cameron Jewell | 26 July 2016
Energy management software company Solar Analytics is on a growth path, with 26 staff currently and more to come as it tests new waters in the US and works to increase its customer base in Australia as solar feed in tariffs come to an end and consumers look to protect against bill shock.
Founded in 2013, the clean tech company provides software that, using an energy meter built by WattWatchers, presents real time energy consumption and solar production data to users through a dashboard on a computer or smartphone.
Co-founder and chief executive Stefan Jarnason says the software allows customers to get the maximum value out of their solar systems.
“We provide some very sophisticated analytics to determine whether their solar system is working correctly,” he told The Fifth Estate. “We show them how much energy they’re using, how much solar they’re generating, and provide them with information on how to get more value out of having a solar system on their roof.”
Jarnason says the amount of savings varies massively from customer to customer, though taken on average over the lifetime of the system these amount to around $270 a year per customer, with some customers reporting savings of thousands of dollars a year.
The big savings come from finding a system that has been underperforming, which apparently isn’t uncommon.
Jarnason points to research by SunWiz’s Warwick Johnson, based on AusGrid data from 8000 NSW customers, which found that about 52 per cent of solar systems were underperforming by more than 10 per cent, with average performance 81 per cent of what was expected.
So why are most solar systems underperforming?
“There’s a variety of reasons,” Jarnason says. “Some of those reasons are readily rectifiable, and some of them more difficult to rectify.”
Examples include faults in the inverter or panels, and even overshadowing from nearby trees.
These faults are destined to happen. International data from Sunedison and Westinghouse has found that 14 per cent of systems will experience a significant failure in any year. For Australia, it’s probably higher, Jarnason says, mostly due to upfront subsidies that have incentivised the purchase of cheap, low quality systems with higher failure rates. He even knows of cheap inverters in Australia that have a 100 per cent failure rate within five years.
And it’s not just small no-name businesses that are susceptible. Last year Origin clocked up a multi-million-dollar loss from having to replace substandard inverters across thousands of its systems.
This means monitoring isn’t just a “nice to have”, it’s essential, Jarnason says.
“Our view is very strongly that every single solar system needs to be monitored, whether it’s by us or someone else. It’s just crazy not to. It’s like driving a car without a dashboard. You just wouldn’t do it. People have spent thousands of dollars on their solar systems, and they’re getting hundreds to thousands of dollars a year in benefits. So these systems are not set and forget.”
Empowerment through data
Aside from fault detection, the provision of real-time data can get people to shift their energy loads and change habits, though Jarnason says while being energy efficient is “the logical, sensible thing to do”, it’s not the main goal of the technology.
“We have quite a few high energy users that are shocked at how much energy they’re using and where it’s being used,” he says. “It does make people more aware. And we certainly provide notifications around that, [but] our view is that most people don’t really want to massively change their lifestyle, if at all.
“Ultimately for us, we’re not about making people feel guilty about using energy, we’re for them using more solar energy.
“And at the end of the day, really, what we all want is to come home, turn on the lights, and the electricity to be there. If we can have that provided by solar generated on our roof, that is a huge bonus. That’s what we’re trying to do, to help people get to that state, where we can look after it for them so they know they’re getting the most cost-effective energy they can and the greenest electricity they can.”
US expansion plans
Solar Analytics recently set up in the US, sending over its first Australian employee to test the waters. Last week it hired someone with local knowledge to help the expansion.
The US market is very different to Australia, however, and necessitates different strategies for the company.
“In Australia, probably 5-10 per cent of solar systems get some form of independent, active monitoring,” Jarnason says.
For the US that figure is 90 per cent.
“So over there it’s not a question of should we get monitoring, but which one should we get.”
There’s also a much bigger number of potential clients, and while Australia currently has the world’s largest residential solar market, the US is catching up – for every new solar system installed here, there’s three installed there.
The main difference that’s driven the US’s uptake of monitoring is the ownership model. Unlike in Australia, where most people own their solar system, 65 per cent of US solar systems are owned by financiers, with energy onsold through arrangements like power purchase agreements. So if the solar system isn’t generating electricity, the user isn’t paying for it, making monitoring a necessity.
The point of difference with Solar Analytics and the US monitoring market is that Solar Analytics will offer solar monitoring but also energy consumption data through its dashboard.
“What we’re looking to do is take market share from the existing monitoring providers,” Jarnason says. “Whereas in Australia we’re creating a new market.”
Plans for the future
The company currently employees 26 staff, though is expecting strong growth.
In the next 12 months, Jarnason expects “quite a number” of additional staff to be hired in development and customer service areas.
Solar Analytics is also working with PhD students from the CRC for Low Carbon Living to develop algorithms for energy forecasting services, which will take into account factors like weather forecasts, a particular system’s generation, and how users tend to use energy on different days and times of the year.
Jarnason says this data around expected solar generation and energy consumption will become more relevant as users start to take up battery storage, which Solar Analytics has developed a widget for that allows users to see what their optimal battery storage size would be, as well as the costs and savings involved.
The first implementation of the forecasting technology is expected to be rolled out in August.