Denise has been a solar energy consultant with SolarCity since well before the company became Arizona’s exclusive residential installer of thin-film solar panels made by First Solar (with headquarters in the Valley).
This summer she’ll mark her one year anniversary working for SolarCity.
The thin-film technology only became available for Valley homeowners this past October, which makes Denise an old-hand at this. Sort of.
According to First Solar’s website, the thin-film panels have a number of advantages over traditional semiconductor panels. Most important in our climate is their ability to maintain efficient power production at high temperatures.
Cost is a big factor, too. In February 2009, First Solar became the first company to build panels at a cost of under a dollar a watt.
Still, there are lots of factors to consider before choosing a company to design and deploy The Array. Cost is one. Performance and durability of the components are two more. Then there are the warranty issues, the company’s track record, whether or not your power company issues the top rebate for installs done by the company in question (or none at all for fly-by-night operations). [Question to ponder: How do even the sleaziest solar power installers fly by night?]
And, of course, the software.
“They are so proud of this software,” Denise said, pointing to the program running on her laptop. Proud and proprietary, apparently, because when Denise noticed that I had my Flip Mino running and pointing at the screen she was mortified and made me promise to erase any images that could allow competitors to copy SolarCity’s software baby: The SolarGuard® Solar Energy Monitoring System.
What does a solar panel manufacturer have to do with software, you ask? Everything. At least that’s how it looks judging by the resumes of the corporate honchos.
- Lyndon Rive — Founder & CEO, formerly the head of Everdream, a software and computer services company that was gobbled up by Dell.
- Peter Rive — Chief Operations Officer, was chief technology officer at Everdream.
- Elon Musk — Chairman, co-founder of Paypal, which was swallowed whole by eBay.
The software designed by SolarCity allows homeowners to monitor, in real time and over time, solar output from their units, total energy consumption, carbon footprint (in tons of CO2 not pumped into the atmosphere thanks to solar power) and even the percentage of cloud-cover. All this information is available online to customers 24/7 and accessed with normal password security.
Check out the sample location — COO Peter Rive’s home in San Francisco.
Although there are lots of straight-out practical benefits to using this software, its primary value is more subtle. I call it the McKibben Effect, named for environmentalist and nature writer Bill McKibben who pointed out the phenomenon in a 2003 essay about driving his Honda Insight.
McKibben realized that while driving he was constantly checking the dashboard display showing his mpg in real time.
“Does it sound like I pay inordinate attention to the gas gauge?” McKibben wrote.
Absolutely. And is it because I’m obsessed with global warming? Not really. True, that’s why I bought the car in the first place, paid the two grand extra it costs to get the hybrid engine. But if you thought about global warming all the time, you’d be nuts. When I’m behind the wheel, I’m an American—competitive, score-keeping, out to win. As I pull out of the driveway, what I think about is: can I beat my last trip?
I know exactly what McKibben means. I went goofy enough over my Kill A Watt; imagine the endless hours of fun that could be had monitoring, in real time, your total consumption of electricity, and how much of it you’re generating with the panels on your roof.
I’ll get to the actual bid soon. (Although it might be changing — a new incentive just kicked in).