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Keeping track of sun's power

Solar energy monitor doesn't sound exciting, but it could take financial sting out of putting panels on a building.

Fat Spaniel Technologies is spying on the sun.

The San Jose, Calif.-based start-up, which plans to announce that it has raised $7 million in its first round of funding on Monday, has come up with a system for monitoring how much energy is being collected by solar panels on a roof. Fat Spaniel says the technology could change some of the economics around solar power.

The system consists of a small device that links up to existing solar equipment and monitors energy collection. The data it gathers is then fed into servers at Fat Spaniel, where it's digested and distributed via PC or cell phone to the consumer, the utility company, the solar installer and/or others who need to know the information.

"Right now, you know how much you use, but not what percentage comes off the grid," said Chris Beekhuis, chief technology officer at Fat Spaniel.

Monitoring how well solar panels perform is a key element in growing the solar industry. It is lined up to be a topic of discussion at Solar Power 2006, a week-long conference taking place next week in San Jose.

Fat Spaniel graph

Calculating the cost of solar power involves an entirely different set of numbers from calculating the cost of regular power consumption. Consumers (or utilities) pay up front for the solar system and then get electricity from it for free. Thus, to figure out if their solar setup is economical or not, users have to extrapolate how much electricity they will use over a given number of years, relate that figure to their capital costs, and then compare it with their projected per-month electricity bills.

That's not really possible to do accurately, unless you first know how much solar energy you're getting from the panels. Right now, people generally compare their old, nonsolar electricity bills with their current ones.

Monitoring could also pave the way for greater solar acceptance by taking the sting out of the cost of installing panels, Beekhuis said. Many potential customers--whether building owners or utility companies--are reluctant to shoulder the up-front capital costs. With monitoring, a utility company can pick up that cost and then sell the electricity back to the customer on a per-month basis.

SunEdison, a company in Maryland, is already experimenting with an arrangement involving installed solar energy equipment at two Staples stores. It then bills Staples for the electricity consumed, both from the solar gear and the grid. This sort of arrangement also means that Staples, like other end consumers, doesn't have to figure out the intricacies of federal and state subsidies.

"SunEdison can fully monetize the solar electrical system. The end user can just buy kilowatts. They know how to do that," Beekhuis said.

Impact on energy use
Energy consumption and conservation tools may not seem as exciting or revolutionary as biofuels or wave power, but they could have a more immediate impact on energy consumption, scientists and analysts said. Investors, moreover, are putting money into such tools.

DFJ Element, an affiliate of venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Chrysalix Energy participated in the first round of funding in Fat Spaniel. DFJ Element first put in $3.5 million in April 2006, and the remaining $3.5 million in the first round was raised recently.

But for an arrangement to work where a utility company installs the gear and charges the solar user, the company has to be able to extrapolate the energy generation, the cost of future grid power and the customer's electrical use over a long period of time.

Still, there are additional benefits. Because the installer gets the data, it can tell if the panels are not working properly (by judging how much energy they are producing) and conduct preventive maintenance.

Wal-Mart Stores has installed Fat Spaniel monitors in two of its energy-conscious outlets--one in Texas and another in Colorado--to promote its commitment to green technology.

Monitoring ends up also helping with conservation. Studies in Japan, where solar power is big, have shown that energy consumption is reduced by around 11 to 13 percent when everyone who is in a solar-enabled building becomes conscious of energy consumption. In most other situations, only the person who pays is the one running around turning off lights and cranking the thermostat down.

Beekhuis installed his company's monitors on his own solar system at home, and he said he noticed that he could soon tell how much electricity the tenant in a downstairs apartment was using. "I could tell when the renter was leaving on the halogen light. I'd call him up and remind him to turn it off if he left," he said. "It's great for parents."

Fat Spaniel sells its system as a service, so the price varies by the type and amount of data and services a given customer wants. But generally, the price of the service works out at only around one percent of the cost of the system. Around half of the existing systems have been installed in residential setups and the other half in commercial setups, but the commercial side of the business is growing faster, the company said.

While the company now monitors solar panels and how much electricity they produce, it will branch out into monitoring thermal water heaters. These are popular in some sun-drenched countries, such as Spain and Israel, and are being tested out in experiments elsewhere. In thermal solar heaters, sunlight heats the water directly.

Fat Spaniel has recently kicked off trials in Canada, Missouri and Florida for such heaters. In the Canadian trial, the thermal water heaters will feed water into the Beach Solar Laundromat.

"There is a lot more thermal energy in sunlight than electricity," Beekhuis said. "In Los Angeles, all hot water came from (solar) thermal heaters until the 1920s." The utility companies then switched them to electric, he added.