I’ll be honest. When a company known for installing more than 2 million backup generators for homes reached out to me for a meeting at Solar Power International 2019 last week, I was not excited. Was the company making the move to green its image, to woo new investors, or to gauge customer interest? We have seen too many legacy companies over the years dabble in clean tech with most of those roads leading to dead ends, but I figured what the heck. Let’s give it a shot. Boy was I wrong.
Walking up to the booth, the show floor around the Generac booth was abuzz over the new home energy storage product it was working on. Earlier this year, Generac acquired the residential energy storage company Pika Energy, who we first talked to at SPI last year at the Panasonic booth. Stacking onto the excitement, Generac aqui-hired the team of energy storage intelligence experts at Neurio Technology Inc. The news was exciting, but with the residential energy storage market moving as quickly as it is today, it was anyone’s guess whether Generac would be able to integrate the two new companies into the fold and translate their disparate technologies into a single set of customer-facing products quickly enough for it to matter.
We connected with Generac’s Chief Marketing Officer and president of its new clean energy business, Russ Minick, at SPI 2019, to talk about its big pivot into energy storage products to learn more about where that strategy came from. Right off the bat, Russ said that Generac had been eyeing the residential energy storage market for quite some time, but until recently, felt that, “it wasn’t worth the diversion of focus.”
“We’ve had our eye on solar and storage for some time,” but the company was really trying to hit the sweet spot in the market. “If you go in too soon, the market isn’t mature enough…if you go in too late, the leaders will already be entrenched.” In early 2019, it started dabbling with the technology, assembling a team of engineers well-versed in residential backup power solutions. After 2 or 3 months, it became clear that they were working outside their core competency and the company instead pivoted towards the prospect of an acquisition. “The ability to get a really competent product to market…would have taken too long,” Russ said.
The early efforts quickly bore fruit as Generac honed its search, performed its due diligence, and decided to acquire the energy storage intelligence experts at Neurio, and just a few weeks later, the energy storage builders at Pika Energy. “We put the teams together,” Russ said. “They’re 3,100 miles apart. One’s in Vancouver, one is in Portland, Maine. We closed, put them in a room and I got out of the way because I’m from Iowa and just let the magic happen.”
That was just a few months ago and the Generac team is already at SPI showing off the fruits of its labor for the world to see. “What you’re seeing here today is our first release and it’s excellent,” Russ said. One of the big hurdles the team had to overcome with the acquisition of Pika was the cost of the unit. “We were doing our diligence on Pika and we thought: ‘it’s a really cool system, but man, it’s too expensive.'”
From early on, Generac felt the high cost of the Pika unit was an opportunity to leverage its existing supply chain and scale to drive the cost down significantly. “We started furiously plugging it all into our Generac supply chain. So that was great. We were able to take a ton of cost out,” Russ said. The original Pika units were built in Massachusetts, but Generac was able to transition a significant portion of the product assembly to Vietnam. It plans to have the production of the units fully cut over to Vietnam by the end of the first quarter next year and is already passing the expected savings on to customers in anticipation of the move.
The Generac PWRcell
Arriving a few minutes early, I jumped into a group of attendees listening to a generic pitch about Generac’s new product line. The new Generac energy storage product line starts with its PWRcell cabinet that unsurprisingly looks a lot like the Pika home unit from last year. It is a tall cabinet that is designed to mount to a wall in a garage or something similar and can support anywhere from 3 to 6 battery modules. That translates to a flexible energy storage capacity of 8.6 kWh up to 17.1 kWh in a single cabinet. Two cabinets can be bundled together
The PWRcell cabinets house up to 6 of Generac’s battery modules that can be added, replaced, or upgraded as needed over time. It’s a beautifully designed system that brings Pika’s energy storage system into the Generac family in a surprisingly short amount of time. That pace alone shows just how serious Generac is about not just adding energy storage to its product mix, but in developing a next-generation energy storage system that provides backup capability and much, much more.
The little guy in the photo above is brains of the family and does most of the heavy lifting for the entire system. The PWRcell inverter can connect up to two of the DC PWRcell energy storage systems to the home’s AC electrical system. Not only that, but it also contains the 50 amp circuit breaker that you can directly wire your essential loads sub-panel to. That eliminates some of the complexity of a typical energy storage system install, making for a less costly, less complex installation for electricians.
In addition to the basic battery backup functionality that you might expect from an energy storage inverter, the PWRcell inverter does double duty and can provide inverter capabilities for a rooftop photovoltaic solar system. Integrating solar and storage through a single inverter enables DC electricity generated by the rooftop solar system to be routed directly into the batteries without having to be converted to AC, run to the battery, and then converted back to DC. That improves the efficiency of the overall process and increases the usable power homeowners can store from their rooftop solar system.
The PWRcell inverter also pulls the autotransformer and transfer switch into the case, further streamlining the installation and overall aesthetics of the system on the wall of the home. On top of the hardware integration, Generac pulled in the intelligence from its new team from Neurio and added load monitoring to the inverter. Think about it like a finger on the pulse of the home’s electrical network, watching not just the power flowing into and out of the home, but also, the way the power is pulled.
Electricity is unique in that the voltages, frequencies, and amperages being pulled by each device leave the equivalent of digital fingerprints. Well, they don’t normally leave fingerprints, but with the integration of Neurio’s intelligence, Generac was able to capture and record all of those electrical fingerprints coming and going on the home’s electrical network. Overall energy in and out is fairly straightforward, but Neurio’s tech goes a few steps further by disaggregating the overlapping electrical signatures, eventually identifying specific devices and their usage patterns.
For example, if the compressor in the refrigerator typically turns on for 20 minutes after the morning breakfast rush and just after dinner time, Neurio’s tech starts to notice that and will eventually parse it out as a unique draw on the home electrical system. It’s the same with other large devices like an EV charger, heating and cooling system, electric dryer, etc.. Smaller devices are harder to isolate, but also are less relevant when looking at opportunities to identify and mitigate vampire drain on the system that might be costing you extra cash each month.
Having a more fully fleshed out picture of what is happening on the home’s electrical system and what that might look like moving forward lets the PWRcell inverter play with some of the more advanced energy storage techniques more effectively. It helps the storage system maximize dispatchability during peak grid pricing and more effective storage control throughout the day. Managing usage in the home more effectively also maximizes the ability for the system to perform rate arbitrage or just to offset peak consumption by pulling from the battery.
This monitoring tech is fully integrated into the PWRcell inverter, but Generac also makes it available through a completely separate device called the PWRview. This little guy is about the size of a laptop power brick and can be installed in the home’s electrical panel in about 30 minutes. It’s a great way for homeowners to get a feel for what devices in the home are using power and what opportunities there might be to optimize the overall usage before installing solar. It’s also a great foot in the door tool for solar installers looking to educate homeowners about their current usage, build a plan to reduce it, then install solar for some self-generation goodness.
We will dive into Generac’s products in the solar space and for its next generation of products in a followup piece shortly, so stay tuned for more from Solar Power International 2019 here at CleanTechnica!