21 September 2010
Return on Investment was hardly a consideration for early adopters wading through the complexity of installing a suitably sized PV system. Dealing with difficult integration issues and high cost was accomplishment enough. But with residential solar installations expanding as much as 43% annually (according to the Solar Energy Industries Association), the market has moved well beyond the early adopters to more sophisticated and demanding users with significantly higher expectations for their PV installations.
“Smart grid developments have ushered in a new generation of residential energy monitoring systems.”
For starters, for customers contemplating renewables, the first order of business is making sure that their homes are as efficient as possible BEFORE sizing their alternative system. Not only does this allow them to optimise and “right-size” their installation, in some areas, it can even be a prerequisite for financing. Once the system is installed, the new breed of solar users expect to be shown exactly how much money their solar system is saving or earning in real dollars and cents – an unthinkable concept for the solar pioneers.
As with all popular consumer technologies, the maturing of the industry coupled with a broader user base results in solar users who are now beginning to expect more choices and a far more robust user interface that allows them to monitor, optimise, troubleshoot and readily see the value of their investment in solar power. In the past, solar monitoring typically took the form of rudimentary displays or computer interfaces that provided a simple readout of kiloWattHours (kWHr) generated, sometimes including basic details about inverter status or environmental conditions. Some dealers have offered monitoring service subscriptions, sold as a service with monthly or annual charges that may enable proactive troubleshooting from the integrator who receives more detailed technical information about the health of the installation. While these tools still have a valuable place in the clean energy offerings of most dealers and integrators, an increasing number of today’s solar buyers expect a user experience that is both easier to understand and more useful in the information that it provides.
To meet these expectations, smart grid developments have ushered in a new generation of residential energy monitoring systems. These user-friendly new systems provide solar dealers, integrators and consumers with the same sort of robust interface that they have come to expect from their computers as well as more sophisticated electronics and appliances.
These new systems offer an assortment of benefits to address the needs of a broad range of users including enhancements to traditional monitoring that effectively enables in-home net metering and personal load management, smart messaging that adapts to individual user requirements and privacy features to assure end-users ultimate control of their personal energy consumption data.
Almost all solar monitors provide some display of kWHrs generated. The newest monitoring systems also provide real-time displays of both energy generation and consumption with meaningful details that show circuit-by-circuit loads in both kWHr and dollars based on the user’s actual utility rate tables. These energy dashboards allow the user to see the impact of load changes immediately and can include such easy-to-understand graphic features as:
- Real time breakdown of utility billing information with explanations of various charges customized for each utility
- Home floor plans identifying individual loads with room-by-room or whole-house detail
- Segmented monitoring of multiple generation sources
- Charts and graphs indicating net energy use over user-selectable periods - from hours to years
- Printable status and savings reports defined by the user that can help the user see the savings from their solar investment
EcoDog’s FIDO Home Energy Watchdog System shows how the latest
generation of solar and home energy monitoring systems can provide
real-time costs and solar “Net Metering” details
With the advent of the smart grid and ever more complex utility billing structures, the most advanced systems even offer users the ability to generate “what-if” scenarios where they can view past usage information with various rate structures and select the most favorable tariffs for their specific usage patterns in areas where utilities offer such choices.
Keeping users up to date
Because most users don’t hover over their solar monitors constantly, the latest systems store data for viewing at any convenient time as a matter of course, but also can send out messaging via short message service (SMS) text, e-mail or other means based on user-defined parameters. These messages can include assessments of energy saving opportunities based on individual usage patterns as well as notifications of energy “hogs,” vampire loads, malfunctioning appliances and solar system performance issues. Alerts can also be defined to notify the system integrator of problems so that they can respond to issues proactively or assist in troubleshooting. While some providers of these new monitors still use a subscription model for some or all of these services, others require no additional fees after the initial system purchase.
Smart energy has privacy implications
“With increased availability of detailed energy usage information come new concerns for privacy.”
Just as security issues were overlooked at the dawn of the Internet era, many have failed to notice the personal information that is tied to energy usage data. With increased availability of detailed energy usage information come new concerns for privacy. Apart from issues about lifestyle data being mined for marketing purposes, it is important to be aware that patterns of energy consumption can be misused to determine when occupants go to work, leave on vacation or where they are in the home. Unlike a breach of financial data, issuing a new account number cannot rectify misuse of these private facts. The safest and most secure systems are those that keep the bulk of usage details within the home network. While some consumers may think that easy web access is a handy convenience, it is vital that system integrators be aware of the potential issues involved and take these factors into consideration when recommending a monitoring system.
These new options in solar monitoring can offer a real boost to solar providers looking for a way to stand out with superior customer service as solar components become more of a commodity. Giving consumers convenient, easy-to-use tools to further reduce their energy bills, troubleshoot problems, optimize their solar systems, and see the return on their investment can be a winning strategy.
About the Author
Susan Connell is Vice President of Marketing at EcoDog, Inc. in San Diego, California.
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