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3TIER Cracks Open Solar, Wind Data With API

3TIER began with immodest ambitions, dubbing its plan to measure and map the planet’s total wind, solar and hydro power potential the “REmapping the World” initiative. Back in October 3TIER showed off a slick high-resolution map of solar resources in the Western Hemisphere displayed using Google Maps. And this week 3TIER took a cue from the Google (s GOOG) playbook, with a move to liberate energy information. Although in launching the FirstLook API, which lets customers call up wind and solar data from the 3TIER servers for their own web applications, 3TIER’s being more modest this time, keeping the gate on its data mostly shut.


The company is calling it an open, standards-based programming interface, but it’s a baby step toward the flexibility that Google, Facebook and Twitter are giving outside developers with their own APIs, or application programming interfaces. While web companies are increasingly offering platforms, and at least some data, for free (“counterintuitive business wisdom infecting Silicon Valley,” according to The New York Times), Seattle-based 3TIER is charging customers — mostly commercial wind turbine and solar panel retailers — $10,000 to get set up with the platform, $5,000 per year for maintenance, and additional fees based on the amount of use.

3TIER marketing and communications director Todd Stone explained yesterday that the idea is for a turbine or solar retailer to sign up to use the tool, and then put together a simple application with data from 3TIER on energy resources and customized specs about their particular product. Buyers and salespeople will then be able to use that app to calculate the expected return on investment for a power system from the retailer’s web site. Use plans will be based on bundles of “calls” to 3TIER’s servers. Stone said the company has set the smallest bundle at 20,000 calls (requests for data), and the lowest rate (for larger bundles) at 8 cents per call.

“I don’t think we’re seeing the commoditization of information,” Stone said. Rather, he sees 3TIER as being in the business of making information useful to clean-power developers, financiers, operators and traders. Bottom line, the FirstLook API won’t be very accessible to bootstrapped startups. 3TIER, itself a venture-backed startup, is trying to build a viable business selling energy data, and it has decided that it can’t afford to give away the store.

Stone said the company at one point looked at using an ad-supported model for its FirstLook system, but decided it wouldn’t cover the considerable costs of gathering and mapping data, including average annual, monthly and hourly wind speeds, daily wind patterns, and measurements of the intensity and variability of solar resources at sites on a high-resolution dynamic map. He said the data “represents a tremendous investment for an organization of our size.”

3TIER has been holding steady at about 85 employees since at least December, when it raised $10 million in a venture round led by Good Energies. (The group also invested $2 million in 2007.) Stone declined to say whether or not 3TIER is now profitable or when it might get there, but said “our investors are very pleased with our progress.”

If the FirstLook API takes off, they may be even more pleased. Just as Zipcar recently launched a fleet management software-as-a-service business (read: low-capital, highly scalable) in an effort to finally climb into the black, 3TIER’s new platform could give it a critical source of revenue that can grow with relatively little additional investment from 3TIER.

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