How utilities are leveraging new software to help customers go solar
SMUD and Avista have already deployed new sites that estimate the costs and benefits of solar for customers
Utilities looking to help customers install distributed generation now have the online platform they need to go nose to nose with the rooftop solar industry.
WattPlan can be up and running on any utility’s website in a matter of weeks and it can make any utility a residential solar expert, according to power company executives now using the software.
“There are those in the utility business who would question why a utility would offer WattPlan and allow customers to evaluate the solar opportunity,” said Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) Distributed Generation Business Policy Strategist Patrick McCoy.
“It is because our relationship with our customers is priority number one. If our customers want to go solar, we have to do everything we can to help them make an informed decision.”
SMUD partnered with Clean Power Research (CPR), WattPlan’s originators, on the development of the software. It has been running in a soft launch on the utility’s website, under the name Solar Power Estimator, since April. Marketing and advertising will come later this summer.
SMUD has also been sharing its market research assets with CPR to get customer feedback in an agile product development of the tool. The testing is of what will be Solar Power Estimator’s final configuration, which includes a click-through to the customer’s MyAccount page.
“When the customer clicks on the link, we send the most recent 12 months of hourly usage data to refine calculations of the customer’s solar opportunity,” McCoy explained.
The testing, McCoy said, turned up three key insights: How easy the tool is for customers to use, how flexibly it can give customers a personalized estimate of what solar can do for them, and the “tremendous ‘cool factor’ customers find in it.”
Avista, an electric and gas utility in the Pacific Northwest, has been getting similar results over the last two months.
“Solar is not the same here in eastern Washington and northern Idaho as in Arizona and California,” laughed Avista Solar Initiatives Manager Kelly Magalsky. “But the utility sees it coming and our customers are getting more interested so we want to be able to advise and help them.”
Before WattPlan, Avista had no substantive way to help its customers make the solar decision, he said. With the tool, customers can now see a complete analysis of their bill with and without solar.
“That helps us have the conversation about whether it makes sense for them. That is what they want to know,” Magalsky said.
Avista, he added, has been especially impressed with the science behind the numbers and financials and how configurable the tool is for the customer.
What the tool can do
With the increased number of players in energy decisions, utility customers face a sometimes overwhelming range of choices,” said CPR Software Services President Jeff Ressler. “But studies show customers still trust utilities and go back to them for answers.”
CPR and SMUD used U.S. Department of Energy grant money to develop the WattPlan software, Ressler explained, to ease the burden on utilities faced with helping the increasing volume of customers that are asking the one basic question: Is solar right for me?
“Customers are used to having information at their fingertips,” Ressler said. "WattPlan allows utilities to provide a personalized estimate of what solar will do for them at the click of a button."
Unlike PowerClerk and other CPR products utilities around the country have been using for over a decade, Ressler said, WattPlan is designed for customers.
It assimilates the customer’s 15-minute interval usage data provided by the utility from newly available granular smart meter data. It also takes in precise LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) remote imaging of the customer’s actual roof. Using this information, it recommends an optimized system size and rate, explained CPR WattPlan Product Manager Brian Boler.
The LIDAR analysis includes the customer’s rooftop size, available space, orientation, and shading.
About half of Avista’s customers, mainly in the urban Spokane area, can get the lidar analysis, Magalsky said. But without the LIDAR data, it makes assumptions and allows the customer to add or correct roof parameters before determining a final optimized system size.
SMUD is at 45% and aiming for full lidar coverage, McCoy said. But the utility is finding no measured dissatisfaction from customers without lidar analysis because the estimates accurately demonstrate the economic opportunity.
“We were careful to stress to our customers that these are estimates and the final analysis can only be done by somebody at the roof,” he said.
Handling the complication of rates and finance plans
After suggesting a system size, WattPlan chooses a best rate from among the utility’s tiers and time-based options.
Smart meter data primarily allows utilities to automate and simplify billing, Ressler explained. But it also makes the determination of an optimum system size more accurate.
“WattPlan doesn’t show the granular data but uses it to relieve the customer of deciding on a best size and rate," he said.
It can also help customers move to more dynamic, if harder to understand, rate plans and help utilities assist customers in avoiding oversized systems, he said.
Avista has no concerns about oversized systems because Washington’s net metering credits zero out annually and “it’s fine for customers to bank credits in the summer to use for the winter,” Magalsky said.
WattPlan also offers the customer a screen with a configurable, side-by-side comparison of the financing options available in the utility’s territory, including a cash purchase, a lease, a power purchase agreement, and a loan, Boler said.
When the customer clicks “financials,” the customer is offered a “without solar” calculation and a set of “with solar” calculations. The customer can change any of the default values the software offers, from projected usage to contract terms to interest rates, he explained.
Avista customers have a simple choice among financing plans, Magalsky said. “There are no third party options. The customer has three choices: don’t do solar, pay cash, or take out a loan.” SMUD is at the opposite end of that spectrum, with virtually every solar financing option on the table in California.
“As financing products evolve, we hope to put the products that would be most interesting to our customers on that page,” McCoy said. “That is where the flexibility of WattPlan is so valuable. It has default settings but the customer can plug in different numbers and manipulate them.”
One possible outcome is that the customer won’t want to go solar, he added. “A tier one customer in SMUD only pays $0.095 per kWh. If a solar company offers $0.11 or $0.12, it is not a good deal.” But with WattPlan’s flexibility, he said, a customer could find a lower rate that works and that puts them in a better position to negotiate.
Solar installers will likely welcome WattPlan, too, because CPR’s PowerClerk “saved them millions of dollars,” Ressler said. “Salespeople will now be able to sit with their customer and get objective data from the utility tool and make an offer.”
Similar independent software-as-a-service tools are being developed by EnACT, ModSolar, and Genability. SunPower and Sunnova have proprietary in-house tools. All are intended to work with utilities through DOE’s Green Button Initiative.
CPR is actively working with five more utilities that range from a large IOU to smaller cooperatives, Ressler said.
Several, including SMUD, are considering adding community shared solar to the side-by-side financial options. The option of energy storage is also being evaluated.
“Some customers interested in solar PV might be disappointed at what they learn using WattPlan,” McCoy explained. “But if they want to participate in solar and see SMUD’s Solar Shares program, they might consider it.”
Utilities license the product, with CPR operating and maintaining it from their servers, Ressler said. Prices vary according to the utility’s scale and projected use.
Like any other data and services provider on the internet, “security is not a destination for us, it is a journey,” Ressler said.” We run on Amazon Web Services, a respected cloud infrastructure. Utilities have trusted us for the 15 years we have been providing software and we intend to maintain that trust.”
As to the cost, he said, utilities see “immense value” in the burdens it relieves them of and the problems it solves for their customers. But, yes, he acknowledged, “theoretically, the cost could be passed to ratepayers.”
“It is accomplishing what we wanted by enabling our customers interested in solar and we have found the license fees fairly cost-effective,” Magalsky said. “It is a normal utility operating expense that is included in rates.”