Installing a rooftop solar system on your home might feel like the best way to fully offset the electricity usage of the home, but new analysis from the home energy monitoring experts at Sense reveals that might not always be the case.
Before we dive in, let’s talk a bit about Sense. The team at Sense actually came from a team building speech recognition software. At its core, the software leverages powerful machine learning algorithms to process and interpret incoming acoustic signals. The team saw an opportunity to leverage the powerful signal processing tools they had built to analyze the electrical signals running around homes.
After some tinkering, they found that by collecting signal data from the main electrical feed coming into the home at a very high frequency, they were able to make sense of the data. Over time, they were able to identify unique patterns in the data they could uniquely associate to individual appliances within the home. Over the last few years, they have built the technology into a solution that comes bundled with an easy to install (for electricians) device that yields impressive insights into the home.
Installing Solar Doesn’t Automatically Deliver Expected Payouts
CleanTechnica has the exclusive scoop on a new survey from Sense that digs into usage and generation data from more than 1,800 customers with solar from across the United States. Sense’s analysis of the results found that while installing a rooftop solar system can make a big dent in the overall energy footprint of a home, the actual return on the investment in the solar system varies widely, thanks to a number of variables.
In fact, on average, homeowners with solar use less than half of the power generated by their solar system directly. That alone mandates homeowners consider the impact of feeding power to the grid and back, especially when connected to utilities without net metering programs. In some states, even where net metering programs exist, utilities are able to buy power from rooftop solar systems at lower rates, then charge homeowners the normal retail rate when they do need to use electricity from the grid.
We spoke with Sense’s CEO Mike Phillips about the solar survey Sense performed to better understand the root cause of the issue and to see what homeowners with solar can do to maximize their returns after installation. “If you don’t have net metering, getting your consumption to better match production has real economic benefits to you and has overall benefits to the grid and supply,” Mike said.
Even when the utility does have a net metering program, feeding solar generation to the grid and pulling it back again later often comes with additional taxes or fees. “It’s not going to be just storage and it’s not going to be just load shifting or demand flexibility.”
Where you live matters, too. Homeowners with solar in Utah and California were able to offset more of their electricity bills, with 84% and 75% of their bills offset, respectively. In Washington state, on the other hand, homeowners with solar on the roof only offset 52% of their utility bills with solar.
Maximize Internal Consumption First, Then Storage
Storage can be added to the home, but comes at a steep cost. Mike is building Sense’s team, capabilities, and solutions to leverage Sense’s data and insights to maximize consumption of the solar generation in the home, where it is the most valuable first. “We started just by focusing on energy efficiency, but we’re increasingly realizing that it’s not only important how much energy you use, but when you use it,” Mike told me. “There is an incentive for you to self-consume whatever solar production you have.”
If storage still makes financial sense at that point, that’s fine, but there is a clear opportunity to leverage Sense’s insights to help homeowners harvest the low hanging fruit in the house first. “It’s going to become increasingly important to reduce your energy consumption and be flexible about when you use it,” Mike said.
The Automation Mandate
That sounds super easy to do and just rolls off the tongue, but shifting consumption into daytime hours when solar is producing energy is no small feat.”How that progresses over time kind of depends on the overall industry,” Mike said. He sees it as a combination of energy consumption insights and Smart Home solutions. It is no coincidence that Sense continues to build up its competency in the data side of that equation, with the majority of its team dedicated to extracting insights from the home. “We’re kind of at the intersection of Smart Home on one side and Energy on the other side.”
Sense is already able to uniquely identify many devices in the home at an extremely granular level, thanks to its ability to record more than a million samples per second. It’s a frequency thing, and having an accurate picture of what’s happening makes all the difference in that game. Building capability to understand what loads are in the home and when they are typically running gives Sense a unique position to orchestrate the usage of energy in the home.
Automation, Mike told me, is the key to unlocking the potential in a rooftop solar system to save money and reducing emissions. “I think the right thing is automation that runs on behalf of the consumer,” he said. While many homeowners could welcome handing over the proverbial keys to the energy powering their smart home, others might not be so quick to relinquish control.
To find the middle ground, Mike and his team at Sense are building the building blocks of home energy automation. “We’ll start to do the cases where we’re fully automating things just to prove the point, but we’re also perfectly happy to provide data and info, with our customers’ permission, to others that are providing these kind of solutions,” he said. These first implementations will demonstrate the potential value of automating the energy management in the home to homeowners and to solution providers.
Sense already works with solar installers to deploy its systems as part of a solar install, but if Sense can demonstrate the ability to save homeowners even more money by managing when the home uses energy, there will be even more pull for its products. “We are increasingly working with solar installers,” Mike said. The opportunity to up-sell customers on a product that not only generates more cash up front for the solar company, but saves the customer money is a no-brainer.
The same goes for the smart home space. Connecting to an internet of things smart hot water heater, for instance, could allow Sense to use excess solar energy to heat water during the day, effectively using it as a thermal energy storage system. That’s just a single example, and when scaled across the large electricity systems in the home like EV chargers, air conditioning, heating, and the like, the possibilities become more apparent.
The more connected and smart our homes get, the more complicated they get at the same time. Many homeowners now have smart lights that go on or off with a voice command, thermostats that program themselves, and EV chargers that send monthly usage and cost reports to our inboxes, but they all operate in isolation. “Energy systems of home should be smart,” Mike said. Companies all around the world are vying for supremacy of our Smart Home, with the face of change being the voice command units that sit in millions of homes around the world today.
From an energy perspective, nobody is really making the same push for dominance. It seems the desire to order pizza, diapers, or the Sopranos with a few words has more allure than the ability to save cold, hard cash on our electricity bills every month.
A Sense In Every Home
“We think this belongs in all homes long term,” Mike said. That seems like an obvious message from the guy building and selling the systems, but his arguments are strong. If Sense can indeed provide the back end data smart home providers need, creating a unified home energy management system at the same time, there is certainly potential there for homeowners to save money.
But that’s a big if. Bringing together the entrenched electricity infrastructure companies with the vast array of smart home companies around the world will take a herculean effort. Sense seems up for the task and is already well on its way to building that first block of functionality in the automation space. They have built a team of energy and software nerds that continue to geek out on the energy footprints of your appliances, using their learnings to reshape your home’s energy footprint.
“With Sense, we give people a good realtime view of both consumption and production to help them with that. Over time, we will be adding automation to automatically shift stuff.” I’m eager for this because it sounds technically amazing and brings along with it the potential to save me money. But honestly, it’s not about energy geeks like me. The automation Sense is building has the potential deliver value to people who could care less about energy efficiency, solar, emissions, and electric vehicles. If successful, it will convert the masses for one simple reason: it will put money back in their pockets every month.