Using electricity rate data to sell solar

Turns out the path to winning over solar customers is through integrating a lot of data. San Francisco startup Genability began knitting together a collection of complex electric rates from utilities across the country in late 2010, and today some of the best known installers and project developers, SolarCity, SunEdison and SunPower, rely on that database to show potential customers how much they can save by going solar.

Electric rates are the basis for calculating a home or business owner’s utility bill and figuring out whether investing in solar will save them money by reducing their need for power from the utility. It also enables installers to put together better marketing and sales pitches.

But consider this: there are about 3,000 utilities in the U.S. with tens of thousands of electric rates devised for various classes of residential and commercial customers. And those rates fluctuate – about 3,500 rate updates occur every month, said John Tucker, the startup’s product manager, during an interview at the company’s office across from the Gap headquarters.

“It takes so much to keep up with it,” Tucker said. “It’s a real pain point for everybody we talk to.”

By assembling the electric rates, developing data-crunching tools, and offering the data to customers via a website, Genability is taking on a task that many solar service providers would rather avoid. The startup charges monthly subscription fees, which range from $89 to $1,000, depending on the number of users with each company and amount of data used.

Many solar companies don’t have the resources to maintain accurate electric pricing data to better calculate energy savings, Tucker said. So they use averages and maybe spreadsheets to do the math, and those methods could lead to estimates that are wildly off. Some installers may have good data for the local territory they serve, but they will find it expensive and time-consuming to do it again and again if they want to expand out of their home state.

The idea

Jason Riley founded Genability after realizing that having accurate electric pricing data is critical for running energy delivery services. He co-founded an enterprise software company called Entessa that was bought by Energy Solutions International, which offers software to manage oil and gas pipelines, in June 2010.

Genability, whose name is a mash up of “generation” and “ability,” amassed the electric pricing data by combing through regulatory filings from utilities and outsourcing the data input work to offshore contractors. It’s got 10 full time employees. Riley, now Genability’s CEO, has been funding the startup with his own money and is now looking to raise a venture capital round of $1 million to $3 million.

Last month, Genability won a $500,000 grant from the federal SunShot program to develop new features and expand the use of the database in order to boost solar installations. SunShot’s goal is to lower the price of solar electricity to levels comparable to power from fossil fuel power plants.  The startup has one year to complete its SunShot project, for which it’s providing a 40 percent matching fund.

The company currently offers the web portal and software tools for its customers to draw on the electric pricing data to do number crunching on their own computers. The SunShot funding will allow Genability to expand its database and add features that will eliminate that step of moving data from one computer system to another and allow its customers to get the results they want by using only Genability’s system.

The startup plans to incorporate a calculator called PV Watts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that provides hourly estimates of solar power production by using factors such as the size of a solar energy system and its location. The SunShot project also will make it easier for Genability’s customers to make use of different electric rates to design better projects and offer services beyond solar. For example, building energy management firms could look for the best rates to make power buying decisions or shift energy use to save money or get paybacks from utilities for lowering energy consumption when demand for electricity is particularly high.