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Summary:

A Virginia startup is using federal grants to develop a device that will cut solar home installation cost while helping the local utility monitor and even control electricity generation from the roofs of its customers.

Infinite Invention's ConnectDER, image courtesy of Infinite Invention.
photo: Courtesy of Infinite Invention.

Call it a wearable for electric meters. Actually, it’s really a gray collar that sits between an electricity meter and the meter’s case, and it contains a bit of tech that could one day cut the cost of installing solar panels on rooftops and also give utilities more control of the electricity production.

The device is called ConnectDER (DER stands for “distributed energy resources”) and it’s being developed by a two-year-old Virginia-based startup called Infinite Invention. The device is still in the early stages but Infinite Invention has received a little help — $841,000 in two rounds of funding from SunShot, a U.S. Department of Energy program to support solar technology development — to get its product closer to market.

Solar panels, Image courtesy of Jon Callas, Flickr Creative Commons

Solar panels, Image courtesy of Jon Callas, Flickr Creative Commons

What caught my attention when I spoke with Infinite’s executives at the SunShot conference in Anaheim, California, last month was the aim of this technology to solve some particularly thorny issues: managing the rapidly growing amount of solar electricity flowing onto the grid and simplifying solar-panel installation. What that means is that if the technology performs as intended, it will become easier and cheaper to install solar equipment on a roof as well as control solar electricity production remotely.

“It’s the most cost effective way to make every home solar ready,” pronounced Whitman Fulton, Infinite’s CEO, as we stood in front of the company’s poster inside a Hilton, the conference’s venue, that is a short walking distance from Disneyland.

In a typical solar installation, solar panels are connected to an inverter, which converts the direct current from the solar panels into alternating current for use at the house or for sending electricity back onto the grid. But electrical wiring is necessary to bring the solar energy from the inverters into a home’s electrical service panel.

An image of how Infinite Invention's ConnectDER version 2 works, image courtesy of Infinite Invention

An image of how Infinite Invention’s ConnectDER version 2 works, image courtesy of Infinite Invention

The first ConnectDER that Infinite is bringing to market eliminates the need to run cables from the inverter into the house. Instead, the cables are routed to the device, which Fulton also calls “solar socket,” that then feeds the solar electricity to the meter case behind it. The meter case contains more robust circuitry that can handle the infusion of solar electricity, Fulton said.

Eliminating that last stretch of wiring and avoiding any service panel upgrade inside of the home — a necessity sometimes to handle the infusion of solar energy — will cut the installation cost anywhere from around $500 to even a few thousand dollars, said Jon Knauer, Infinite’s product manager. Each ConnectDER could support a solar energy system with up to 10KW of production capacity.

Last month, Infinite started two pilot projects with utilities, the Orlando Utilities Commission that serves the Florida city, and Pepco in Maryland. In Orlando, Infinite will run its solar sockets at five homes and two locations belonging to the utilities. The project with Pepco involves 10 homes. Both projects are set to end in May 2015. Infinite is also working with Green Mountain Power in Vermont to start up a pilot project.

Infinite Invention's ConnectDER, image courtesy of Infinite Invention.

Infinite Invention’s ConnectDER, image courtesy of Infinite Invention.

 

Infinite is working on developing an advanced version of its solar socket that will allow utilities to monitor and control the amount of solar electricity that flows onto the grid by communicating with the inverter via the cellular technology embedded in the new version of ConnectDER. The inverter gets to control the amount of solar energy that makes it to the grid, and any amount that doesn’t get processed by the inverter becomes heat and is dissipated into air.

The ability to ramp up and down solar energy production will become critical when there are a lot of rooftop solar installations in a neighborhood or city. Solar energy production from those roofs will vary depending on a host of factors, including how sunny the day is and the orientation and cleanliness of the solar panels. That variability is a worry for utilities because the grid runs smoothly when there is a balance of supply and demand. Any big drop off or infusion of solar electricity will upset that balance and can lead to blackouts.

While utilities would like to be able to control solar energy production, many of them can’t do that, at least not now. That’s because regulations, which mostly come from states, typically don’t allow utilities to control the energy production of solar panels they don’t own. Giving utilities that kind of control will run into strong opposition in states with net metering rules, which allow homeowners to get credits on their utility bills for sending excess solar electricity into the grid.

Solar panel on rooftop, courtesy of Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons.

Solar panel on rooftop, courtesy of Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons.

Fulton is aware of this major roadblock for his company’s technology. Clearing it might be easier in small utility districts, he said. But in major solar states such as California, where big investor-owned utilities dominate and are heavily regulated, doing so will be much tougher. Utilities might have an easier time getting regulatory approval if they just want to use the device to monitor the solar energy output — which could still help them to manage the grid — without being able to control it as well, he added.

The company expects to launch the smarter version of its ConnectDER in the first quarter of 2015. Infinite plans to make money by selling the ConnectDER, and for the advanced version of the solar socket, the company plans to charge for collecting and processing solar energy production data. The company expects utilities to own the solar socket since it would be connected to the meter.

Infinite has raised some private seed money, the amount of which Fulton declined to disclose. They plan to start hunting for a Series A at the end of 2014 or early 2015.

  1. Yes the ability for the utilities to “turn off” solar power coming back onto the grid, something they can use to control their marketplace
    I think not

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    1. but you do agree that it’s ‘their marketplace’? That’s big of you, considering they install and maintain the entire infrastructure to your property line

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      1. @Gary: I don’t agree. Where I live, the utility is a monopoly, fully paid for by the ratepayers.
        The main doubt I have, other than the issue of trusting the utility (like @DJ) is *how* this control works to suppress the output of the inverter.
        If it suppresses the output of the grid-tie PV system by disconnecting it completely, this means that when the utility doesn’t want my power, they effectively turn my system off, thus also preventing my system from covering the household needs and forcing me to unnecessarily purchase utility power…
        I may be wrong, and there may be a way around this, but if it requires the use of a specialized inverter, this would be another issue.

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        1. They would not be altering the inverter, but controlling the flow through their device which connects your inverter to your home electrical system through your meter. Basically what it would do is convert excess electrical current to heat. Anything beyond what is being used in your home will be converted. Based on what they have discussed in this article it looks like they have designed it to do that.

          Now as far as it being “their” marketplace, that doesn’t mean it BELONGS to them, it means they operate within it. If they have the ability to put a strangle hold on that market they will, because that means they control the price and thus the profit margins. I would prefer power companies investing in grid level storage to even out the flow rather than investing in products to reduce production from renewable sources. I don’t mind getting paid wholesale prices for my over production while they charge full retail price for that power on the other end of the grid. I do have a problem with them burning gas and coal to produce power that could have been stored from solar that they just wasted 3 hours ago.

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      2. Gary….who gave them that ” marketplace? ” What a gig f%*#@ing HUGE gift ! It’s a true dream for anyone selling or supplying anything to have that gift…also know as a MONOPOLY !!!! When I cannot go anywhere else for a service that I need ( my power for my Home !) then what a sweet spot for the Monopoly and it is impossible to have that structure without a power play in place where the Monopoly is not in control ! Yes there is an infrastructure in place, there is for everything ! Does that mean that we surrender all control then? No we pay the appropriate fee to use and maintain the structure. Just like when the telephone companies were deregulated…making the home phone affordable as I now had several options to choose from….right now Solar makes the Monopoly of the Utility Company something I can way lay. Its a GREAT thing !!!

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      3. Casey Sellers Friday, June 20, 2014

        A public utility is not private enterprise. A public utility is an organization that maintains the infrastructure for a public service. As such, Public utilities are subject to forms of public control and regulation ranging from local community-based groups to state-wide government monopolies.

        In the United State, public utilities are often “natural monopolies” because the infrastructure required to produce and deliver a product such as electricity or water is very expensive to build and maintain. As a result, they are often government monopolies, or if privately owned, the sectors are specially regulated by a public utilities commission.

        So no, it is not there’s to own and do with whatever they want. In addition, the funding and licensing (think eminent domain) they receive to build these infrastructures often comes from public sources (taxpayer) as well as private.

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        1. Casey Sellers Friday, June 20, 2014

          Also think easements. Easements are not owned by Utilities but rather, local governments. Utilities use these easements by permission.

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          1. Wrong, Casey. In most states easements are granted by the landowner. Examples: My electric utility company has a five-foot wide easement across the back of my property to maintain a power pole and lines. My city has an easement to build and maintain the street, gutters, and drains in front of my home. I pay property taxes on the five feet at the rear and to the middle of the street in front. :-)

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            1. If the landowner “grants” an easement. they should be able to not “grant” the easement. Try saying no to your local government. I think you’ll find law requiring the easements as part of your ownership of the land. While you may pay taxes on the land because you own it, you’ll be hard pressed to avoid letting the utilities and government run power lines, roads and sidewalks through it. And it is the government that gives the utilities the required permission to run their stuff through the easement, not the property owner.

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      4. And we pay for that install every month don’t we Gary!

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    2. I think the grid owners should be able to buy or not buy. It would be awesome if this technology were modified to allow the homeowners to set a price for their power, then allowing the grid owners to buy or not-buy at that price at that time.

      But the sentence where unwanted power is dumped as heat is a problem. The homeowners should have a storage capacity instead, but that of course costs money.

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      1. I don’t think the excess is dumped as heat. It just throttles back the amount of power that’s drawn from the panels, sort of like turning the valve to regulate water flow from the faucet.

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        1. They specifically state that the excess energy is exhausted as heat.

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        2. No, they said “The inverter gets to control the amount of solar energy that makes it to the grid, and any amount that doesn’t get processed by the inverter becomes heat and is dissipated into air.”

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    3. It’s their grid. Of course they should be able to control it.
      Why should solar users assume they can just dump their excess into it and expect to get paid also?
      It is the utilities grid. They built it. They maintain it. They have to generate revenue to do this.

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      1. They should “assume” it because it is the law.

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  2. This is a lot of bull. Giving the utilities the ability to nullify your investment. With no real saving to the instillation. Most meters are with the breaker panels in many locations saving nothing on wiring.

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    1. Agreed. For a PV system installer, they would have to schedule their electrician and the utility rep. to show up at the same time — a good way to create an extra expense. For most homes with existing spare capacity in the electrical panel and an average size PV system, a simple backfed breaker is the only interconnect that is needed, so it’s already simple enough.
      I think the major barrier for this product is consumer mistrust of the utility and its intentions. So the only way consumers will accept this product is if it’s imposed on them by the utility.
      Where I live, a local politician says that when he became a member of the state’s utility commission, he quickly learned that the utilities have a list of off-limit topics that they won’t let the commission discuss — in other words, they own the utility commission.

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      1. You don’t have to have the utility rep and the electrician there at the same time. The general contractor meets with all inspectors, nothing changes there. The utility seals the meter once they hear from the general contractor that the work passed inspection. Even if the drop from the pole has to be upgraded, the utility never meets with the electrician. They do their thing and the electrician does his.

        You simply pull the meter, make your changes and reinstall the meter head. As long as you have a permit the utility doesn’t care unless they catch you bypassing the meter. This installation method would simplify and standardize the electrical connection for all home electrical generation systems thus reducing the total costs.

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  3. What is the cost of this unit as compared with a traditional dc to ac converter? I still think the only way to have a good system is to also have a battery system to store your power for you and to heck with the utilities.

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    1. Cal, the company isn’t disclosing the price for the device at this point. It’s figuring out pricing by working with different vendors. As you can see, the pilot projects it’s undertaking don’t involve a lot of homes. The price would fluctuate depending on how quickly it could ramp up the sales.

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    2. LesserOfEvils Friday, June 20, 2014

      A storage system (i.e., battery) is what will level the playing field, as Cal points out. the utility can turn off if it wants to. If the utility goes that route, those homeowners with a storage system can legitimately argue for lower “distribution” charges on their bill, as they will only access the grid power as a backup.

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  4. I see several problems here. Utility control has been mentioned. The power to potentially stop your panels from running your refrigerator or lights even when the sun is out has been mentioned. Giving that sort of control to corporations has a history of abuse. On the other hand, in case of a power outage, the utility needs to make sure the inverter isn’t feeding the grid, to ensure safety of line crews. So “a simple backfed breaker” is not sufficient.
    This problem is a lot more complex than it appears at first glance.

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    1. @Roland: Actually, a backfed breaker is precisely how grid-tie inverters are designed to be connected to the electrical panel. Those inverters includes circuitry to satisfy the IEEE 929 requirement. This means that the inverters cannot output any AC power if they don’t “see” the grid. This protects utility line workers from being exposed to circuits energized by a solar grid-tie PV system. Also called anti-islanding.

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  5. Interesting place to put the connector and a very good location for it too. I would rather have the passive device for if the utility controls it who’s to say they won’t bias the system to sell more of their own electricity? And burn off the excess in the form of heat energy? We need a better use for the excess. I can think of 10 or 15 ways to use the excess in a positive manner.

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    1. Then you pay for the means to use the excess .

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  6. what is really needed is storage. Smart grid with ample storage would eliminate all of the issues talked about in this article. Storage in the way of large scale flow or the like, distributive like cars and home, storage imbedded in a smart grid solves most of the problems for renewables and ought to be a national priority. Allowing companies that have a vested interest in keeping demand high and supply low the ability to turn off supply is obviously a bad idea, especially when that vested interest is a monopoly.

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    1. Manuel A. Gloria Thursday, June 19, 2014

      Froarmy; Agree with you 100%

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  7. Unless I am missing something, I don’t see anything new here. Every inverter manufacturer either has the communication and control technology to some degree built in, or is working on it. I see this unit as a stop gap measure that adds to system cost. Utilities worldwide either already require or will soon require communication and control to a DG system and the ability to adjust how much power is fed to the grid. The utility will not limit what a homeowner consumes, just what is exported to the grid. This functionality is required for several reasons, including safety.
    What is not clear in this article is how the last stretch of wiring to the house is eliminated. This also does not pass the first “sniff test”. If you are feeding more power from your solar system than your electrical panel is designed for, you must either upgrade your panel, divert it to the grid (sell it to the utility), burn it off in heat (the worst of all options for several reasons!) or just not produce it.

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  8. might work for co-ops and munis, where net metering is not a big issue. IOUs are different altogether.

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  9. You must be kidding! The utility company had better not try to control the amount of power generated by my solar system! The corporations are already controlling our lives! I am curious to know if the utilities requested the development of this device!

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  10. Hi — This is Whit, the CEO of Infinite. Until storage becomes cost effective, in order to bring unlimited amounts of of solar onto the grid (as in more than 15% of peak load), utilities or other grid operators will need some ability to manage the influx of power to the grid from solar. Currently, their options are limited to saying “no” and locking out new interconnections or to upgrading transformer capacity, which gets expensive quickly. This technology allows utilities to fully open the grid to new interconnections in exchange for reserving the right to temporarily curtail production during periods when the far more is being produced than the grid can safely handle. The curtailment would be on a contractual basis with the homeowner and limited to a few emergency events per year. Think of it as a “Supply Response” program, similar to demand response program but in reverse. That’s the thinking behind the “control” aspect. Mostly we’re focused on reducing installation costs and creating a standardized interconnection point. The “Smart” aspects are sweeteners that we’re exploring to see what additional value we can drive using that same real-estate.

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