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Are Inverter Players and Data Loggers the Gatekeepers of Future Residential Solar Services?

Roberto Rodriguez Labastida — April 5, 2017

Inverter and data logger companies, the little cousins of the solar OEM world, are sometimes seen as playing a secondary role in the industry. The cost of inverters is usually a fraction of module costs and an even smaller fraction of the total installed cost of a residential solar installation. But their location in an installation—between the solar modules and the grid connection—gives their manufacturers an opportunity to play an important role in a distributed energy as a service world.

Who Owns the Client Relationship?

In my Solar as a Service (SOaaS) report, I argue that large SOaaS player like SolarCity, Sunrun, and Vivint Solar need to evolve their offerings to offer advanced energy services. Their hold on the client relationship gives them an advantage against external players offering this type of service. But despite grabbing most of the headlines in the solar industry, the truth is that there are only a handful of large SOaaS players. All of them are active in one market—the United States—and combined manage only between 50% and 60% of all distributed solar installations in the country.

Globally, there is simply no large installer or SOaaS provider with a significant hold on the market. This opens the question of who can own the client relationship in this fragmented world, especially for small installations.

Inverter and Data Logger OEM Providers

It is difficult to see small local installers investing heavily in this type of service, but their OEM providers could. While module manufacturers take the lion’s share of the hardware cost of an installation, their product is essentially dumb. On the other hand, inverter and data logger OEMs do offer relatively smart products.

Inverters and data loggers with monitoring software have been part of distributed solar installations since at least the late 2000s, when distributed solar gained popularity, and in virtually all installations after 2012. Data loggers (external or as part of inverters) and monitoring tools have been used by installers and inverter companies as differentiators in an otherwise very competitive market. While there aren’t any public figures on active users, there are some examples of the penetration in the market. SMA—a leading inverter OEM—has put its user figure at around 250,000 residential end users. Using an average of 5 kW per installation, each company is monitoring around 1,250 GW. Solar-Log has a similar number of data loggers in the field, providing monitoring and other services to around 11.6 GW of installed capacity (including large installations). Other inverter companies like SolarEdge and Enphase have also integrated monitoring services into small-scale products.

Most of the smart monitoring tools have been developed and run at a loss by inverter and data logger OEMs. By doing this, they have inserted themselves in the routines of solar installation owners, as the monitoring tools are the interface between the solar system and the installation owner.

Ideal Candidates

Monitoring tools can become the seed of more interesting energy services if the OEMs keep building the products offered through their tools. Most of them already allow for battery installations along with solar, and some companies are already adding ways to monitor loads and become home/building energy management tools. They could even open the platform to allow third-party service providers through an app store to add other services like generation forecasting, artificial intelligence-based load management, etc. The interface role that inverter and data logger OEMs play in solar installations, combined with their large user base, makes them ideal candidates to provide advanced energy services.

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