Solar power is catching on, slowly. The United States is the third biggest market for solar energy (after Germany and Japan), with California as its earliest-adopting state, where about 80,000 residents have installed systems. New Jersey and a few other states are getting into the solar game as well. There's one rather serious problem with this budding realm of clean energy, though—a lack of access to data.
On both the installer side and the end-user side, participants in the solar power experiment are often flying blind. "People who buy these things just expect that someone else is going to watch them," Tom Dinkel, CEO of the startup SunReports, tells Fast Company. "I think they expect the utility to care or the installer to care. But the utility doesn't care at all, and the installer hasn't figure it out."
Regular instabilities in the grid could knock a solar system offline. "You could go a couple of months and not realize your inverters are offline," says Dinkel, saying he often encounters systems that have been down for "who knows how long." (When solar power goes out, most homes revert back to the standard grid as a back-up measure.)
So SunReports has created a device that looks like an Internet router and is designed to monitor a home's solar power production. SunReports informally calls it a "speedometer for solar." This is appealing not only to those who own home solar systems—after all, you want to collect on that investment that you've made—but also to installers, who can use the data to sell new systems. "Installers are required by law in some jurisdictions to provide a ten-year warranty. Their current strategy is just hoping for the best. We're allowing them to actually manage that risk, see how systems are performing, and use that as a sales tool," Dinkel says.
One of SunReports's cleverest ideas, though, is to leverage social networks and people's inherent competitiveness to get the most out of solar power. SunReports currently delivers its dashboard of information to customers on the web, but it has plans to move to Facebook. In the near future, customers should be able to use a Facebook application that will broadcast their solar savings across their social network. The idea is to make your friends green with envy, you might say, over your own greenness.
SunReports was founded about three years ago, but only came out of "stealth" in 2010. "2009 was not a great time to raise money, but it was great time to innovate," says Dinkel. "We kinda did it all on pizza and beer—this is very much a bootstrap company."