Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fat Spaniel: Increasing Solar Adoption by Reducing Information Asymmetry

In the advocacy of renewable energy, it is useful to think about the market failures which stand as obstacles to the adoption of renewable energy such as solar. One notable market failure in solar adoption is the lack of information in the hands of consumers, installers and utilities on just how productive solar panels are at producing electricity (and accordingly, how cost-effective solar power is compared to conventional power).

But one San Jose, California start-up, Fat Spaniel, which recently announced a strategic alliance with DRI Energy, aims to change all that with a small device that links up to existing solar equipment and monitors energy collection. The data the device gathers is fed into servers at Fat Spaniel, where it's digested and distributed live via PC or cell phone to the consumer, the utility company, the solar installer and/or others who need to know the information. User can get real-time and historical information about amount of solar power produced by their solar systems, and even what that translates to in terms of avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions (see above pictured example of web interface).

With this technology, utilities of solar financiers like SunEdison can more accurately better monitor a solar energy system's productivity and more accurately monetize their power purchase agreements in an arrangement where it purchases, installs, owns and maintains the systems while charging its customers periodically simply for the purchase of solar power.

System installers can use the technology to ensure that the systems have been properly installed and remain effective and productive throughout its lifespan, or undertake necessary maintenance work if it is not. In an interview with Green Wombat, founder of Fat Spaniel, Chris Beekhuis accounts:"[Our clients] want to be able to forecast and guarantee performance. But it is very difficult to monitor those remote sites. We have an installer in Southern California who is approaching 100 installations. They can see a problem online and then go out and fix it. They leave a door hanger that says, 'I’ve improved performance of your array.' "

Individual users of the technology can benefit by becoming more conscious about their energy usage in the context of the supply of power generated from their PV systems. As Chris Beekhius, founder of Fat Spaniels, explains in his article in RenewableEnergyAccess, "real-time access to these types of data helps maximize system efficiency—you can't improve the efficiency of a system for which you have no data."

Ultimately, the increased information serves to heighten transparency in the renewable energy markets, and reduces the risk premiums for investments in such technologies. This is best described by Beekhuis himself, in the following excerpt from his article:

As the U.S. moves into a national regime of renewable energy standards and regulated carbon markets, system owners and operators will want to maximize the financial value of their investments in renewable generation. The best way to track a system's real energy output to ensure accurate Performance Based Incentive Payments, protect ratepayer investments in capacity-based or expected performance-based rebate programs, and to grow vibrant and trusted financial markets for Renewable Energy Credits and Carbon Credits, is through independent metering and monitoring.

While no one would question the good intentions of the clean energy community, financial markets do not run on good intentions. In fact, a fundamental economic tenet is that markets don't function at all without meaningful, verifiable information that comes from trusted sources. If buyers and sellers are uncertain about the products they're trading, or can't reliably compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, they have no way to accurately assign a value to those products.

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