Software and solar panels are probably not the most exciting parts of clean tech for most people, but there are some innovations happening in the space, specifically with regards to software.
We met up with SunPower’s Jake Wachman at this year’s Solar Power International Show in Anaheim, California, to talk about how he is leading the charge to make it easier for customers to learn about solar without having to give out phone numbers, emails, or selling children off into indentured servitude.
For starters, Jake shared that he believes software is the key to unlocking the potential of solar and that SunPower is committed to leading that charge.”We want to be known for the highest efficiency panels, the best solution for our customer and also, the easiest experience which, in a lot of cases, is really good software,” Jake shared. “We have dozens of people on our software teams that are dedicated to solving these types of problems,” and that SunPower is really making a push to establish a software team that can compete with the top talent in Silicon Valley.
Zero Commitment Solar Assessment Tool
Across the internet, solar lead generation has devolved into lots of data entry fields that work to eke out customer contact information to pass along to solar installers in their region. The problem with that model is that many customers just want to see what size solar system they would need for their home or to see what it would cost without having to worry about getting dozens of follow up calls about it for the next 3 years.
SunPower has apparently either been skimming through my email spam box or has heard from their own customers because they went off and built a beautiful solar assessment tool for residential customers. Their tool is unique in that it does not ask for all sorts of customer data up front to get started. It clearly does need an address to understand where on the planet the system will be installed, local electricity rates, and the like, but that is a bare minimum to be able to calculate solar requirements.
The user can take in information about the property and crunch that through SunPower’s calculator to determine what size system they would need. The tool also subtly shows off one of SunPower’s strengths as their industry leading efficiencies result in a much smaller sized system.
Using my old home as the guinea pig, I found that with SunPower panels, I would have only needed 13 panels for our home plus one car versus the 17 LG and Kyocera panels we had on our roof. Granted, my panels were older and thus, older tech, but SunPower continues to lead in panel efficiency.
At the end of the process, users can enter their information if they want to learn more, but flipping that equation around is refreshing and the tool works rather well. It’s not so complex that users won’t be able to understand it without a degree in electrical engineering, but at the same time, it is robust enough to add value.
Sol, The Intelligent Assistant
SunPower’s commitment to software solutions is also manifesting itself in some unique solutions like its new digital assistant, Sol. Sol is a machine learning-powered digital support bot that’s underpinned by IBM’s Watson. In layman’s terms, it’s a support tech that you can chat with and it actually comes up with intelligent answers.
In a handful of queries, I found Sol to be helpful and to provide rich content like video in its responses. Giving visitors options for how they want to take in the information through written responses and video makes the tool more functional for more people.
Sol is unique in that it was built entirely in-house at SunPower, which shows how the company is looking two steps ahead at ways technology can solve problems and improve the situation for customers. Developing the tool in-house let SunPower add in hooks that give customers an escape if they want to contact a sales person, want to talk to a customer service representative or prefer to send an email to a real person.
I envision customers new to solar getting a lot of value from Sol by just being able to sit there and ask all the ‘dumb questions’ that they might be too embarrassed to ask a real person. The answers, videos, and content that Sol spits out are helpful and if they just aren’t cutting it, people can opt to talk to a person about it.
Looking To The Future
In talking with Jake, he clearly had something that he wanted to say but couldn’t talk about yet, so I’m eager to hear what they have to share with us in the next weeks or months. There are still big opportunities on the customer side to make the process for signing up for a solar system even easier, with a shorter time from order to install.
On the hardware side, the integration between the solar system, a home energy storage system, and the utilities is increasingly an art more than it is a science and as such, represents one of the biggest opportunities in solar.