We talked to the folks at Span about the launch of the Span Panel last week, then jumped on a plane to Solar Power International 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah to experience it first-hand. We found that not only did it look far better in person, it had way more tricks up its sleeves than the initial launch let on. We’re back again to unpack the home-changing Span Panel with all of its exciting features we learned about at SPI and to talk through a few risks that come along with it.
Right off the bat, it was exciting to see the Span Panel in person, and it had the hood popped open for us to look inside. The top portion of the panel looks much like a traditional electrical panel, with rows of standard circuit breakers running up the center. The rather mundane appearance masked the true power of this connected, intelligent electrical panel. In traditional homes, the electrical panel is a place rarely visited, thought about or utilized. It is little more than a home for the incoming power connection to the house, an electrical meter, and the individual circuit breakers that protect each of the circuits in the home as they sprout off from the main trunk.
A Tangled Web of Connectivity
The Span Panel injects itself into these circuits by tapping into each circuit between the breaker and the home. From there, the panel can monitor the electrical usage on each circuit and even control the power consumption at the circuit level without the need to replace each with a smart breaker. Said another way, it essentially puts full control of each circuit in the home into the hands of the homeowner.
Everything is managed via an easy to use, intuitive smartphone app with simple controls that give homeowners unprecedented control over their home electrical network. Ok, I know, I’m a bit excited about this tech and I’m fully aware that most of the people in the world could care less about their home’s electrical network, usage, or the ability to control what’s happening at the circuit level.
Span’s CEO Arch Rao spent 5 years at Tesla, where he worked with the Tesla Energy team to stand up the Tesla Powerwall, so he’s familiar with what real customers think they want and need as well as all the things they want but don’t know it yet. He packed all of that experience into the Span Panel to fill the gap between renewable rooftop solar generation, home energy storage, and EV charging because of his experience at Tesla. It was a product borne out of the opportunities that surfaced on the fringes of Tesla’s business model and that context is evident in the Span Panel.
Simple daily tasks like turning the lights in a room on or off can be handled by the Span Panel via these circuits. Tasks like asking your favorite smart assistant things like, “Hey Google, turn off the living room lights,” or just setting all the lights to turn off when your phone disconnects from the home’s wireless network are within reach without having to replace each and every bulb in the house with smart lightbulbs and a connected hub.
In the event of a power outage, tapping into and taking control of a home’s electrical network at the circuit level gives the Span Panel the ability to intelligently and dynamically manage loads without the need for individually connected circuit breakers. For example, if the power goes out, one homeowner may want to simply have the lights on to maximize the time the home can run off of the battery until grid power is restored. Another homeowner with rooftop solar and even more storage may want to keep the computers and internet powered up to stay on top of news about the storm that caused the power outage. The Span Panel enables these admittedly simplified use cases as well as many more complex ones.
The ease of integration into the home is enabled first by the ability to monitor and control the energy flow into and out of the home’s electrical circuits. It is further bolstered by the integration of renewables from the outset. The addition of an auto transformer and an automatic transfer switch gives the Span Panel insight into what’s happening with
Challenges on the Horizon
Pitfalls, you may ask? Sure, there are a few. First, all of the promise that comes with the Span Panel has been built on the foundation of the product itself. Electrical panels aren’t simple pieces of tech that can be quickly or easily installed or uninstalled when version 2 comes out 2 months from now. Rather, they are integrated into the very fabric of the home. They must have each and every circuit in the home manually wired in and connected up to a circuit breaker. That’s a very normal thing to do when installing a solar system or rebuilding a home, but not something homeowners are going to want to do on a regular basis.
That puts a massive amount of pressure on the design team at Span. If the initial hardware design was not correct, not robust enough, or not flexible enough to enable new functionality via over the air updates, early adopters may miss out. With their roots in Tesla’s Powerwall system, the Span Panel may be their first product, but it isn’t their first time building a connected intelligent energy product for the home.
As such a critical component of the home electrical system, these panels must also be robust, reliable, and supported for the long haul. Traditional electrical panels are dumb, but they work. The mechanical components they contain are still there because they have stood the test of time and are still around to talk about it. Span doesn’t have that type of credibility yet, but that’s not to say that the company can’t change the game and flip the world of electrical panels on its head.
Time will tell if the Span Panel is going to change the world, and we’re not going to have to wait long to see what happens. Installation of the first Span Panels are slated to begin later this year with a significant ramp in production planned for early 2020 after the early learnings from the first installs have been assimilated back into the product and go-to-market process.