Andrew Greenfield checks his home’s
solar power output against consumption through his computer and
mobile phone dozens of times each day. The International
Business Machines Corp. storage engineer enjoys trying to match
the power he consumes to heat his pool in Arizona with what he
produces during the day from the panels on his roof.
Greenfield has paid nothing for power from his local
utility since the system was installed by SolarCity Corp. (SCTY) a year
ago. At parties and family gatherings he proudly shares his
savings data with anyone who’s interested.
He’s your utility’s worst nightmare, and there are now
hundreds of thousands of homeowners and small businesses like
him as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs transform monthly ratepayers
into smart consumers.
“I travel a lot, and don’t always remember to turn off my
AC or the pool heater,” Greenfield said. “Now I can just do it
on my cellphone.”
The same rooftop solar providers that are threatening
utility revenues are more than just occupying customer roofs.
They’re inside the home, monitoring usage trends and adapting
the systems to meet both homeowners’ needs and their own bottom
SolarCity, Sunrun Inc., SunPower Corp. (SPWR) and Locus Energy LLC
are amassing billions of points of data in smart home systems
that consumers love and that baffle utilities, many of which
have no incentive to help consumers manage their power usage
A Nov. 21 Harris Interactive (HPOL) poll of 2,022 U.S. adults
commissioned by Sunrun found that 74 percent have an interest in
using technology in their home to track personal data and use
energy more efficiently.
“I’ve had solar on my roof for five years, but my utility
still doesn’t even know when my power goes out,” said Julia Hamm, president of the Solar Electric Power Association, a
Washington-based industry group of utility members. “The
information is there, but they aren’t using it. This is
something that utilities need to adapt to.”
The lack of visibility into homes shows how utilities have
consigned themselves to one-way relationships with ratepayers in
their monopoly service areas. Their efforts to develop smart
grids have largely failed to energize consumers despite a $4.5
billion government stimulus package in 2009.
While utilities have installed millions of smart meters in
homes, they haven’t made use of the data to engage consumers the
same way solar providers have, said Neil Strother, a smart-grid
analyst at Navigant Consulting Inc. (NCI)
“Utilities are more focused on cutting their own costs
than in helping consumers become more efficient,” he said.
“They aren’t motivated to reduce demand.”
The U.S. Department of Energy is more confident that its
cash will start to shift the way utilities work with data, said
Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary of electricity delivery
and energy reliability. The money went to help fund 15.7 million
smart meters as well as more than 1,000 sensors on the electric
“Utilities will learn to use this information,” Hoffman
said in a Nov. 27 interview. “It enables demand management,
better integrates clean energy and optimizes the grid.”
The solar systems, meanwhile, collect real-time data on
hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across the country
that utilities could use to more efficiently and reliably manage
their power grids.
“We have an algorithm that tracks the clouds designed by a
Ph.D. from Stanford,” said Adrian De Luca, vice president in
charge of sales at Hoboken, New Jersey-based Locus Energy, which
monitors more than 25,000 solar systems in the U.S. and Canada.
“We can tell from across the country whether performance
isn’t up to specifications for whatever reasons,” De Luca said.
“The utilities should want this data.”
SolarCity, which monitors about 50,000 solar systems, is
working to share its data with California’s grid operator and
utilities, said Chief Operating Officer Peter Rive.
“We’re deploying smart meters from day one of installation
and run simulations to determine the most efficient ways to
reduce the customer’s bill,” Rive said. “We’re eager to share
Nat Kreamer, chief executive officer of Clean Power Finance
Inc., said some utilities don’t see the potential benefits of
using smart meters to engage with consumers to improve their
service or reduce their utility bills.
“I asked an executive at one top 10 utility what he was
hoping to get from smart meters, and he basically said just to
eliminate the meter readers,” Kraemer said. “They left a bunch
of value on the table.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Reed Landberg at