The problem with solar's online marketplace

In theory, a specialized platform where consumers looking for a certain type of product or service can research, compare, and even buy it is a no-brainer. Like Amazon or Etsy, it is likely to be your first port of call.

The same can be said for solar, but EnergySage in particular has unintentionally created problems in the solar market.

From the consumer's perspective, it provides all the information you could want about your pending solar project. From a range of local installers, to the quality of equipment they'll use, to the kind of loans available, it's a one-stop shop. 

But it so often overlooks a critical element: project developers aren't installing your system at cost. They have overheads. And setting cost expectations too low is now hurting the energy storage industry, just like it has done to solar. 

In practice, this means buyers become disillusioned when they are quoted reasonable prices, and the quality of service is therefore more likely to drop if only those willing to do business at basement prices are going to engage. Your local electrician may have the capacity to perform the work for a desirable price, but does he have the time to take care of all the paperwork? Or to perform reliable after care? For current battery projects, it's not unusual for our admin team to spend 20-40 hours per rebate application. Without the resources, you can't handle this properly. So who suffers?

This is relevant again to us now as the same patterns are emerging in the storage market. EnergySage created a race to the bottom for solar, but having seen similar complaints from fellow developers arise now with batteries, it feels like time to step back in and voice concern. 

Evidently, this isn't to say that EnergySage is without merit and, in intent, it is a friend to the industry. But if experienced developers would rather stay away, then it should be discussed, for the sake of consumers and the industry, and energy storage is too important in pushing renewable energy forward and achieving all the targets we have set ourselves to be laissez faire. 

So what should happen? Firstly, we need business owners, organizational leaders, and property owners to embrace energy storage. It's here, it's happening, and it's a game-changer. Secondly, as a consumer, ask for referrals. Use these marketplaces for research, but find people happy with their purchase and start there. There's a lot of happy customers out there!

SCE’s new rate hikes represent a significant challenge for SMBs

Utility rate changes are nothing new in California, with the average annual hike being in the region of 6%. It’s due to high maintenance costs apparently, but rising legal and insurance costs come into the picture too, with liabilities attached to wildfires, among other things.

Perhaps it’s the scale of more recent events that’s behind the substantial March 2019 rate increases for SCE. After all, ramping up the demand charges and shifting the peak period to 4-9pm couldn’t simply be a strike against solar customers, surely.

But either way, small and medium-sized businesses, particularly those who cannot avoid operating after 4pm, are going to suffer the consequences. Unless they’re ahead of the curve and have energy storage capacity.

This is the basis of the changes that came into play in March 2019.

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So what’s next? Well, businesses in certain areas are being spared to a degree by the Clean Power Alliance, but they’ll still be hit with SCE peak demand charges. Then there’s an option to adjust operations and operating hours for some, but it would be impossible for others.

A battery would be the best option, especially for those with nowhere else to turn, as it would turn a financial sink-hole into a potential revenue stream, but more immediately, planning now for these summertime peak charges will be important if they want to avoid really nasty surprises in the mail.

SDG&E customers can testify to that. And with LADWP in the midst of civil lawsuits and controversy around overbilling its customers, it’s never been more evident in Southern California that businesses need to prioritize energy intelligence.

Put it on your list for this month to investigate further how your business will be affected, and how you can take measures to minimize the impact.

Understanding the differences between your commercial and residential electric bills

It's been my experience that people take a far closer look at their electric bill from their home than they do at their office. This makes sense: you feel like you have more control over your personal energy usage. Plus, many people don't even see their electric bill at work. And if you do take a glance at it, the complications of the bill probably just have you scratching your head, as it's a far more complicated looking animal in the commercial space. It's easier to simply send it straight to Accounts Payable and get entered as just another cost of doing business. 

Come budget time, you may have a meeting and see that cost bundled into a Building and Maintenance entry or maybe your more detailed and it fall under a more appropriate header such as Utilities, hidden alongside your phone and internet usage. Whether you do this yourself or have someone overseeing that segment of your business, it's likely that you simply plug in a 10% increase annually into the spend rate there and you've covered your budget expense for that category. 

This is logical. It's understandable. But it's wrong and it's time you take a hard look at your electricity bill, understand this expense your business is paying out every month and learn what you can do about it. 

Let's review first the primary differences in your electricity bill here in a general sense for Southern California as an example. There are many different rates available from your electricity provider, but we'll make this very simple and review the basics here: tiered in Domestic versus a General Service commercial rate. In residential you may have viewed your bill under a routine "D" (for Domestic) rate charge and seen that there are tiered levels of service: many now down to three or four levels. The first is a simple baseline and Tier 1 is a pretty nice price point and if you can keep it there, life is good. But most of us will get to Tier 2 pretty quickly and see a slight jump and in no time at all you're hitting Tier 3 where it may more than double your baseline kWh rate and a Tier 4 soon follows with even higher rates. 

Here is a sample residential Tier flow from the SCE site:

It's pretty simple though: lower your usage each billing period and you'll lower your rates. This allows for residential solar to blossom by keeping your usage in that lowest tier rate overall and offsetting your electric bill at the higher tiers. 

In commercial billing though, there are a multitude of rate codes, from GS-1 to GS-3 (General Service) and multiple TOU (Time of Use) options...over 20 different Rates Pricing on the Regulatory page of Edison for General Service - Industrial Rates alone. 

It's enough to make your head spin as fast as your old meter! 

What to choose? Well, they'll make that part easy for you under certain provisions of the PUC in easy-to-understand language like this (from SCE's Revised Cal. PUC Sheet No. 55930-E): Applicable to single- and three-phase general service including lighting and power customers whose monthly Maximum Demand registers, or in the opinion of SCE is expected to register, above 20 kW and below 200 kW. The customer whose monthly Maximum Demand, in the opinion of SCE, is expected to reach 200 kW or has reached 200 kW for any three months during the preceding 12 months is ineligible for service under this Schedule. Effective with the date of ineligibility, the customer’s account shall be transferred to Schedule TOU-GS-3. Further, any customer served under this Schedule whose monthly Maximum Demand has registered 20 kW or less for 12 consecutive months is eligible for service under Schedule GS-1. 

Oh. What? Maximum Demand? What is all this? I'm just trying to run a business here! 

I know; you didn't look that far into the bill, like the page 3 sample below before shipping it off to AP with a despairing shrug of the shoulders. Most likely you were never told how electric use is billed for commercial accounts at all, much less have a profile in usage patterns provided for your facility. 

Here's how this generally works: in addition to charging you for your energy consumption in simple kWh during peak and off-peak hours, your meter usage will reflect your highest usage point in any fifteen minute period and designate that as your Maximum Demand. In other words, your Maximum Demand is based on the highest level of electricity supplied at any one time during the billing period. This not only puts you into a billing rate category, but in commercial electric rate terms will be the basis for a higher rate and when you add the delivery charges and peak versus off-peak and taxes and all, it may account for approximately 50% of your monthly electricity bill. 

Take a look at this sample SCE bill from a small business on Time of Use, General Service-2 rates and notice the various demand rates circled which total over $900 of their $1767.38 bill that month: 

We're not talking "fair or unfair" here; simply pointing out reality. However, knowing this may allow you to change some of your patterns of behavior to keep that in check and in many cases save significantly. 

Understanding your power profile is truly powerful, because what gets measured gets done. If you come into the facility every morning at 7am and turn everything on at once,  you've created your Maximum Demand at a highly inflated rate. If you can wait and turn on certain sections at fifteen minute intervals, you can control that cost a little more with a simple change in behavior. 

This is obviously a very simplified look at a fairly complex system and it's understandable if your team is not on top of this aspect of your costs. You have a business to run. But if you have a team member who has taken the time to investigate these costs, give them a raise and give yourself a pat on the back for hiring them! And if you haven't yet, take the time to assign this task to investigate further. 

There are a lot of costs to doing business you have to account for, but you should no more accept your utility's monthly charges at face value than you would accept a carte blanche charge for your new phone system or internet provider. Understanding your electricity costs and taking control of your usage allows you to remain competitive and will likely be an advantage for you that your competitor hasn't taken the time to understand as you now have. 

Operational Adjustments: The Quick and Easy Guide to Energy Efficiency

When it comes to improving your energy efficiency, you have two options: capital investment and operational adjustments.

Although capital investments often come with proven returns, they typically require a significant financial outlay that more often than not are not taken into account on annual budgets.

On the other hand, operational adjustments can provide significant savings via low- or no-cost changes to existing operations. And that’s what we will look at here.

Through data analytics and energy intelligence, low or no-cost energy efficiency matters can be implemented quickly and easily and provide noticeable and traceable improvements. These measures are:

  1. Peak Demand Management: You can’t determine peak demand using the monthly utility bill but with hourly interval data, peak demand profiles are easily discerned. Facilities managers can utilize an analytics platform to ensure critical peak demand loads do not coincide with discretionary loads that can be shifted to off-peak periods.

  2. Start-Up Synchronization: Peak demand can spike when multiple loads are turned on at the same time. By synchronizing the start up of equipment in a staged manner, a spike in demand and the subsequent energy charge can be avoided.

  3. Weekend Consumption: Many commercial and industrial facilities have regular shutdown periods (weekends, off shift periods, scheduled maintenance windows) that should result in substantial reductions in energy consumption. A data and analytics platform provides the energy intelligence required to determine if optimal savings are being achieved, and if not there’s something wrong.

  4. Weeknight Set Points: Analysis of off-shift periods is another area where savings are often achieved. For instance, shallow drops in energy demand during off-shift periods might indicate only a few pieces of equipment shutting down. Having access to historical demand data to create a relative performance benchmark allows the comparison of energy use over time to see how drift and variance might be wasting energy.

These measures will result in significant cost savings, and a data analytics platform will identify the anomalies and variance that provide evidence of failures before money is wasted. Business owners can make immediate improvements just by being aware of the areas to watch, and then analytics can provide the ongoing intelligence to maximize that efficiency.

Jonathan Caizley,
CTO and Cofounder

Something to think about...

This is a big part of why we do what we do at Sunistics. From holistic energy management to teaching young people and children about the importance of energy intelligence and sustainability, we want to support organizations that feel the same way that we do - and inspire the next generation to make a difference. 

Email us at jvodden@sunistics.com if you have interest in energy education for children and young people in your organization or community, or for energy management services to help reduce your environmental impact and demonstrate your community leadership. 

Solar power inspires greater energy and environmental awareness in Long Beach community

The principles of energy intelligence and environmental responsibility continue to grow in a Long Beach, California, community – and it’s a church at the heart of the movement.

More than 100 children, young people, staff and volunteers from Covenant Presbyterian Church, based in the downtown area of the city, participated in an event to learn more about energy and what can be done to reduce its use and impact on the environment.

The church, home to the Marguerite Kiefer Education Center’s (MKEC) Rising Tide program, provides educational services for children and young people in the area and plays a huge part in their lives. Pastors Rob and Adele Langworthy, who is also the executive director of MKEC, wanted to inspire greater energy and environmental awareness as part of their own commitment to energy management.

Members of the Sunistics team, including Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Caizley, which was engaged to analyze and improve the organization’s energy usage in light of spiraling costs, was on hand to provide an engaging class as part of celebrations around the installation of a solar system on the church’s roof.

“We want our children and young people to be aware of the implications of using electricity, where it comes from, and how we must be responsible for our relationship with it,” said Rob. “The solar power installation and additional energy management initiatives Sunistics has helped us to implement are evidence of our commitment to better energy and improved environmental conditions for our community, and we want to spread that message as far as we can.”

Of the event, Adele said, "The children responded favorably. Lights were being turned off when they left rooms as the day progressed and the computers were being turned off at the end of the day. It was a very good presentation and very informative. We had several adult volunteers who were here and came to the presentation, and they loved it!"

The classes and messages are part of an ongoing partnership between Sunistics and Covenant Presbyterian Church, designed to encourage the youth in the area to follow the church’s example of energy intelligence and environmental responsibility.  

"We've worked closely with Rob, Adele, and the team at Covenant Presbyterian Church for a while now and we are regularly inspired by the work they do and the impact it has on the community," said Jonathan. "Helping the next generation to learn about energy is part of our mission as a company and helps us to shape our future relationship with the environment together with those who share the same vision."