The nation’s hottest solar market is being invaded by software developers – and they could give utilities the competitive edge they want.
Because communuity shared offers otherwise excluded utility customers the solar opportunity, it is the “biggest trend” for solar at utilities, according to a recent Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) report on the topic.
It also is, according to the GTM Research, the most significant U.S. solar growth market.
“We spent tens of millions of dollars figuring out how to do this and then about $10 million and six years building the technology,” Clean Energy Collective (CEC) Founder/President Paul Spencer said of his new software offering.
“The concept is to plug the holes the developer needs filled in order to get more community solar into the marketplace.”
Community shared solar’s explosive growth
New data in DOE’s recent report on shared solar shows an estimated 49% of households and 48% of businesses unable to host solar on their own rooftops.
By subscribing to a share of a centrally located array’s output, utility customers who are renters, or have roofs too old or too shaded, or who use too little electricity to justify an individual installation can get solar benefits like a fixed electricity price likely to soon be exceeded by rising utility rates.
“By opening the market to these customers,” DOE reports, “shared solar could represent 32% to 49% of the distributed PV market in 2020, thereby leading to cumulative PV deployment growth in 2015 to 2020 of 5.5 GW to 11.0 GW, and representing $8.2–$16.3 billion of cumulative investment.”
The U.S. community shared solar market will add 115 MW in 2015, a roughly 500% year-on-year increase in growth over the 21 MW added in 2014, and almost twice the 66 MW cumulative installed capacity at the end of last year, according GTM Research’s new report, "Community Solar Outlook 2015-2020."
From 2015 through 2020, the “most significant U.S. solar growth market” will add 1,800 MW, a 59% annual rate, and be installing at the rate of 500 MW per year in 2020, according to GTM.
Some 29 developers are working in community shared solar projects, GTM finds, but sector leaders Clean Energy Collective and SunShare account for 32% the capacity now online. National residential market players like NRG Home, SunEdison, and SolarCity are moving in rapidly.
CEC was the first into the community shared solar space with its 2010 El Jebel, Colorado, array. To date, 24 states have projects in some stage of operation or developent. California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Minnesota are expected to add over 80% of new capacity through 2017 but, with governing legislation moving in 20 states, geographic diversification is coming.
Software-as-a-service to community shared solar
CEC began developing its RemoteMeter software in 2009 at the same time it was working to make the shared solar concept viable. The software was conceived by Spencer and his team as a way to manage customer information and to integrate with a utility’s billing system.
It was designed to directly apply the credits earned for the subscribed portion of the community-owned solar array to the customer’s bill “as if the panels were on the customer’s house,” Spencer, a former software and engineering entrepreneur, said. “That was the first functionality.”
Designing the new software was a crucial step in the progress of shared solar because “we knew the utilities would say they wouldn’t do it if they have to pay people to key in all the customers’ credits,” Spencer said.
The software has evolved into CEC’s Community Solar Platform (CSP), a software-as-a-service (SaaS) product Spencer believes will move the market forward and give utilities the know-how to open “a great new business line for them.”
A CEC pre-designed format is loaded onto a utility-buyer's website, as examples now being used by Poudre Valley REA and Kit Carson Cooperative demonstrate. This can be done in minutes and the utilities can begin recruiting subscribers almost immediately, Spencer said.
The software platform has three options, he explained. RemoteMeter Foundation embodies the foundational tools, such as bill crediting contracts. RemoteMeter Engagement is the website template and ecommerce and customer engagement tools. RemoteMeter O&M guides the operations and maintenance of solar facilities.
There are three packages of services provided "over the top of those," he went on.
- A “delivery blueprint” is a step-by-step guide to construction, from the selection of equipment to pricing.
- A “finance solutions” deals with solar’s many financial complexities, including tax equity, customer finance, and project finance.
- “Customer services” covers everything CEC has learned about customer interactions.
“Buyers can choose which components they want,” Spencer said.
“Utilities are all looking for a way to get involved in the community solar boom and software-as-a-service is a great idea for them,” said SunShare CEO David Amster-Olzewski. “We have been developing the same thing and are starting discussions with utility companies about our plans to roll out a similar solution.”
Like CEC’s CSP, SunShare’s solution is an evolution of the platform it built from its own experience. It plugs into any billing system, from those of large investor-owned companies to those of cooperatives and municipal utilities. It makes bill crediting “a seamless transaction between the utility and the utility customer.”
SunShare’s software also handles construction, management, and operations of utility programs. As the company broadens its footprint nationally to match CEC's, SunShae expects to be able to offer an SaaS product and consultative services “to help utilities choose the best business model to meet their objectives,” Amster-Olzewski said.
“An IOU might want to earn a profit for their shareholders whereas a cooperative or a muni might want a less expensive project to keep their members’ rates down,” he said.
Though SunShare has not branded or widely marketed its software, it is presently available and the developer is rolling it out with individual utilities, Amster-Olzewski said. “We call it the SunShare Experience.”
Both CEC’s CSP and the SunShare Experience are also available to private sector developers and companies interested in offering a branded solar product to employees.
Energy Services Management (ESM) provider Tendril recently announced a more limited software solution for community shared solar developers.
“Whereas residential solar used to be an impenetrable market for utilities, Tendril explained, “it is now not only an energy source utilities can tap, but also an engaging service they can market and sell to a customer-base that has been underserved by rooftop solar providers."
The Tendril Community Solar solution is designed with three parts to streamline the customer-facing part of shared solar:
- multiple marketing tools can cut the costs of customer acquisition,
- methods of interaction can grow higher-quality, pre-qualified leads, and
- continuing customer engagement can keep references and recommendations flowing.
Cannibalizing their own businesses?
Making its “secret sauce” publicly available, even at the substantial set-up and monthly fees CEC will charge, could seem like “cannibalizing our own business,” Spencer said. He had long seen it that way, but recently he came to a new realization.
“We have been busier than we can handle for five straight years, ever since we announced our first project to the public. Every year, the demand has outpaced our ability to keep up,” he said. “We have 150 employees and we are growing as quickly as we can but we still don’t have enough people.”
Because their customers are asking for it, "community shared solar went from being a nicety to being a necessity,” Spencer said. He finally decided the only thing he could do to foster growth is provide a scalable tool.
“It only takes a short amount of time to set up a utility whereas we might spend a year getting a utility’s project developed and subscribed,” he said. “If utilities have the tools and the know-how, community solar can be a great new business line for them.”