Solar is where it's at

SunPower backs Tendril & plans to use its energy software

Decade-old energy company Tendril has struck an important deal with giant solar panel maker and project developer SunPower, the companies announced on Monday. SunPower has invested $20 million of growth capital into Tendril and has licensed Tendril’s energy software for solar data-related services.

Tendril started out life by building a platform to connect wireless sensors with an emphasis on ZigBee, and as the company grew it started to look for problems that its platform could solve, like building automation. Eventually it started focusing on smart meters and home energy management. For a long time, Tendril focused on utility customers and a few years ago bought Grounded Power, a startup that used behavioral science to create customer engagement for utilities (similar to what Opower’s original software does).

SunPower California solar ranch

In 2012, with a still early and pretty competitive market around home-energy software, Tendril went through a shakeup and did a substantial round of layoffs. But as Tendril stabilized, some like Smart Grid News’ Jesse Berst predicted that Tendril could now finally be positioned for substantial growth, as the market had been growing significantly for home energy software and Tendril has been an early mover in new ways to use energy data.

So it looks like the booming solar market could be part of that recovery, and Tendril’s new growth strategy. Both Tendril and Opower have recently expressed interest in teaming up with solar companies.

Solar was the second largest source of new electricity in the U.S. (behind natural gas) for the first three quarters of 2014, according to a recent report from SEIA. Tendril will be able to use SunPower’s solar data to develop its platform for solar-related services for utilities and other energy service providers, according to the release.

Austin's 's Pecan Street Project. Photo courtesy of Pecan Street Inc.
Austin’s ‘s Pecan Street Project. Photo courtesy of Pecan Street Inc.

Solar companies have been eager to both build and acquire energy data products to help manage solar panels on the grid, and to help solar customers engage with their solar systems more. SunPower makes its own panels, it manages large solar panel farms for utilities and commercial companies, and it also has a growing business around leasing solar panels for homes.

SunPower launched this residential solar leasing program in 2011 and it provided a bright spot of revenue for the company during the more difficult times in the manufacturing downturn. SunPower is now looking to grow that residential leasing program substantially and recently has started to focus on owning the relationship directly with the residential customer. SunPower has said it wants to be sort-of a Dell of solar, and the company is working on launching a new online retail portal and a new consumer marketing strategy.

I would guess that it’s SunPower’s new residential consumer solar strategy that is at the heart of the partnership with Tendril. With the funding from SunPower, Tendril has raised over $100 million, and other investors include Siemens Venture Capital, GE, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Good Energies, and RRE Ventures.

Mind you, Tendril does have a long history of announcing partnerships with big companies, like BMW, that tend not to move beyond a demonstration project. But this partnership involves a substantial investment as well as a licensing deal, so it sounds pretty significant. Competitors with Tendril include Opower, C3, Silver Spring Networks, Aclara and others.