Blog Post

This startup’s energy gadget could make rooftop solar cheaper & more controlled

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┬ásolar 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.

70 Responses to “This startup’s energy gadget could make rooftop solar cheaper & more controlled”

  1. Tony Plumb

    Already a company building a device to make an end run around the intent of the law… No way. You cannot convince me that my bill does not cover their expenses ( making, transmitting/maintaining power grid ) + a healthy return on their investment. You would have to be crazy to think this is a good thing. If I feel the need to “dissipate” excess power, it will be into a battery bank for my private future use. In light of the current economics, I think a gov. grant could be spent on something to HELP the people, not again try to steal what little people manage to accumulate… Amazing…

  2. Peter Molloy

    So this is going to be another rate increase by utilities to add to their return on asset rate base? I really hope that the utilities take the normal amount of time to evaluate this just like they have been evaluating their smart meters and smart homes since the 90’s. If Sunshot money is provided to utility supported products then are we really opening the market to a more competitive free enterprise. Just a question from an entrepreneur who has invested in deregulating the utility industry for the past 15 years.

  3. Greg Lesher

    In order to turn the meter in reverse is needs the proper meter. Been there, done that. One solution, get a battery backup, and do not give the cheap dinosaur power company a dime of electricity. Only use one connection from them as a back up charge source for your own system, if you think it is worth the $35 monthly fee just to have their power if you use it or not.

    These same companies here in Utah want to charge a monthly fee on homes that use solar power. So if you disconnect, they can’t bill you one penny. Can we say monopoly fanciest control any one?

  4. PoliticiansSuck

    Solar is meant to not be so dependent of the utility companies. This seems like we’re giving all control of solar to them. I’m sure the utility companies are going to find a way to keep the prices the same, if not raise them while reaping more in profits.

  5. Uncl Todd

    I feed about 1 KW into my home’s wiring after my modest bank of 12-volt emergency batteries are charged. I am not selling electricity to my utility company, but I am REDUCING the amount that comes through their meter by that amount! They have NO way of monitoring that! It is only about 10 cents per hour for about six hours a day, I will not live long enough to see a return in my (minimal) investment. But the thought that I can directly reduce the amount of electricity I use always makes me smile, even though the panels cost me about $1 per watt. :-)

  6. R. Williams

    I recommend that we have zero contact with the grid by using the device. There is no need to sell excess sun created energy to a power company. You can sell it to your next door neighbor or, better yet, sell it to local commercial businesses. They would be happy as punch not to buy energy from power companies.

  7. Kurt Schroeder

    Batteries are getting cheaper and mote efficient. There is no need to connect to the grit. Shut of the grit and feed you solare energy in to your batteries.Keep your system separate from the Utilleties.The sun will be Happy and you too.

  8. this tech wouldn’t save homeowners money on their installs. Obviously this article was written by someone that knows nothing about solar installations.

  9. BIG GARY

    The utility electric “GRID” was built with OUR grandmother and grandfather’s tax money. The utility co does not “own” the lines they maintain them.

  10. WOW Whit.. How many ways are the utilities trying to screw the people. They charge fees to use the lines, pay less than full rate for energy being produced by solar/wind, limit what people can sell to the grid, and now they want control over it all….and it includes wasting energy when they deem fit. What they need to do is figure out how much energy is being produced compared to demand and produce the difference. If the grid isn’t flexible enough that’s where they should be working on improving the system. The lowest cost energy should never be Wasted just so the utility companies still make huge profits. Every bit of energy produced by the people and put on the grid is sold by the utilities only at a smaller profit range. Oh the horror…the utilities aren’t soaking their customers for every penny they can…they must find a way around that. And here it comes. I for one will always be against this and am passing this around to see it never happens.