This startup’s energy gadget could make rooftop solar cheaper & more controlled

Call it a wearable for electric meters. Actually, it’s really a gray collar that sits between an electricity meter and the meter’s case, and it contains a bit of tech that could one day cut the cost of installing solar panels on rooftops and also give utilities more control of the electricity production.

The device is called ConnectDER (DER stands for “distributed energy resources”) and it’s being developed by a two-year-old Virginia-based startup called Infinite Invention. The device is still in the early stages but Infinite Invention has received a little help — $841,000 in two rounds of funding from SunShot, a U.S. Department of Energy program to support solar technology development — to get its product closer to market.

Solar panels, Image courtesy of Jon Callas, Flickr Creative Commons

Solar panels, Image courtesy of Jon Callas, Flickr Creative Commons

What caught my attention when I spoke with Infinite’s executives at the SunShot conference in Anaheim, California, last month was the aim of this technology to solve some particularly thorny issues: managing the rapidly growing amount of solar electricity flowing onto the grid and simplifying solar-panel installation. What that means is that if the technology performs as intended, it will become easier and cheaper to install solar equipment on a roof as well as control solar electricity production remotely.

“It’s the most cost effective way to make every home solar ready,” pronounced Whitman Fulton, Infinite’s CEO, as we stood in front of the company’s poster inside a Hilton, the conference’s venue, that is a short walking distance from Disneyland.

In a typical solar installation, solar panels are connected to an inverter, which converts the direct current from the solar panels into alternating current for use at the house or for sending electricity back onto the grid. But electrical wiring is necessary to bring the solar energy from the inverters into a home’s electrical service panel.

An image of how Infinite Invention's ConnectDER version 2 works, image courtesy of Infinite Invention

An image of how Infinite Invention’s ConnectDER version 2 works, image courtesy of Infinite Invention

The first ConnectDER that Infinite is bringing to market eliminates the need to run cables from the inverter into the house. Instead, the cables are routed to the device, which Fulton also calls “solar socket,” that then feeds the solar electricity to the meter case behind it. The meter case contains more robust circuitry that can handle the infusion of solar electricity, Fulton said.

Eliminating that last stretch of wiring and avoiding any service panel upgrade inside of the home — a necessity sometimes to handle the infusion of┬ásolar energy — will cut the installation cost anywhere from around $500 to even a few thousand dollars, said Jon Knauer, Infinite’s product manager. Each ConnectDER could support a solar energy system with up to 10KW of production capacity.

Last month, Infinite started two pilot projects with utilities, the Orlando Utilities Commission that serves the Florida city, and Pepco in Maryland. In Orlando, Infinite will run its solar sockets at five homes and two locations belonging to the utilities. The project with Pepco involves 10 homes. Both projects are set to end in May 2015. Infinite is also working with Green Mountain Power in Vermont to start up a pilot project.

Infinite Invention's ConnectDER, image courtesy of Infinite Invention.

Infinite Invention’s ConnectDER, image courtesy of Infinite Invention.


Infinite is working on developing an advanced version of its solar socket that will allow utilities to monitor and control the amount of solar electricity that flows onto the grid by communicating with the inverter via the cellular technology embedded in the new version of ConnectDER. The inverter gets to control the amount of solar energy that makes it to the grid, and any amount that doesn’t get processed by the inverter becomes heat and is dissipated into air.

The ability to ramp up and down solar energy production will become critical when there are a lot of rooftop solar installations in a neighborhood or city. Solar energy production from those roofs will vary depending on a host of factors, including how sunny the day is and the orientation and cleanliness of the solar panels. That variability is a worry for utilities because the grid runs smoothly when there is a balance of supply and demand. Any big drop off or infusion of solar electricity will upset that balance and can lead to blackouts.

While utilities would like to be able to control solar energy production, many of them can’t do that, at least not now. That’s because regulations, which mostly come from states, typically don’t allow utilities to control the energy production of solar panels they don’t own. Giving utilities that kind of control will run into strong opposition in states with net metering rules, which allow homeowners to get credits on their utility bills for sending excess solar electricity into the grid.

Solar panel on rooftop, courtesy of Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons.

Solar panel on rooftop, courtesy of Marufish, Flickr Creative Commons.

Fulton is aware of this major roadblock for his company’s technology. Clearing it might be easier in small utility districts, he said. But in major solar states such as California, where big investor-owned utilities dominate and are heavily regulated, doing so will be much tougher. Utilities might have an easier time getting regulatory approval if they just want to use the device to monitor the solar energy output — which could still help them to manage the grid — without being able to control it as well, he added.

The company expects to launch the smarter version of its ConnectDER in the first quarter of 2015. Infinite plans to make money by selling the ConnectDER, and for the advanced version of the solar socket, the company plans to charge for collecting and processing solar energy production data. The company expects utilities to own the solar socket since it would be connected to the meter.

Infinite has raised some private seed money, the amount of which Fulton declined to disclose. They plan to start hunting for a Series A at the end of 2014 or early 2015.