With the advancements of the Internet of Things and whole-home automation, it is surprising that easy management of energy storage systems isn’t included in the equation. When a homeowner hooks up a battery, typically only a few circuits are rewired for energy backup. The bedroom lights may not get that emergency power, but at least the refrigerator and air conditioner are still running.
This tends to be the biggest education hurdle for installation companies — explaining that the lithium batteries on the market can’t actually provide whole-home backup. Morgan Brawner, VP of business development at SunPower by esaSolar, said this conversation is often challenging for the Central Florida installer. Many customers are interested in storage for hurricane-induced grid outages, and they believe one Tesla Powerwall will provide power for the whole home.
“Energy storage is not a commodity that can just be quickly added as a line item and forgotten about,” he said. “It takes some real conversations about how much you can power with one battery. We use a ‘final configuration’ document when we complete our engineering package that our customers sign that clearly states which circuits we are backing up to ensure there are no surprises on the day of installation.”
New generation electrical panels and smart circuits can change that conversation. Instead of only backing up a few loads through a protected loads panel, smart circuits and energy management software allow for load toggling — someone can stop supporting the air conditioner for a little while to instead turn on some lights.
That ability to choose or automate which circuits to support with energy storage is a major selling point of the hardware/software combo of Lumin. A physical box installed next to a home’s electrical panel, Lumin allows for whole-home backup (on varying schedules) by making all circuits smart. Through an app, system owners can manage their energy usage and protect their batteries from prematurely running out of juice.
SunPower by esaSolar has installed Lumin on about one-quarter of its battery projects and expects that number to climb as the storage market continues to grow. Brawner described Lumin as a “game changer” for homeowners to better connect the monitoring experience with real-time usage behavior. Rather than just monitoring the battery, Lumin can actually manage use.
“I think the future of PV and energy storage will involve a lot more innovations in smart energy management to provide better transparency to energy behavior trends and home energy use,” he said.
Lumin launched in 2016 as a way to advance the adoption of green energy by improving the technology of tried-and-true breaker panels. Instead of replacing the home’s breaker panel with a brand new configuration, Lumin is a simple add-on that works with any battery brand and electrical panel, said company co-founder and CCO Kevin O’Shea.
“Replacing an existing breaker panel with an entirely new one is very costly in terms of time and labor before you even add on the cost of the product itself,” he said. “Our approach allows us to meet the market demand for smart and responsive load control without that large upfront cost.”
Another product in the nascent smart circuit market is Span’s electrical panel. Unlike Lumin, the Span Smart Panel replaces the traditional circuit breaker panel to become the primary energy and control hub for a home. Instead of juggling the upkeep of two boxes, Span makes all circuits smart at their source.
Launched in select markets in 2019, Span provides smart customization for 32 circuits. When power goes out, the Span Smart Panel isolates the house and allows the customer to control important loads via a smartphone app. Span, which is led by executives and engineers previously with Tesla, Amazon and Sunrun, has established relationships with LG Chem and Panasonic, with the battery companies offering Span as a packaged deal. The panel is currently available in California and Hawaii, with new markets coming soon.
“Self-sufficiency and control within the home are top of mind for many homeowners with power outage concerns now compounded by coronavirus shelter-in-place orders,” said Span founder and CEO Arch Rao in a press release. “Last fall, power outages affected millions in California, and shutoffs are starting again as utilities perform precautionary maintenance in fire-risk areas. We developed the Span smart panel to give homeowners greater energy independence in the face of these growing challenges. With Span, they have greater control over their home energy, especially when they need it most.”
While it’s true that battery companies offer monitoring through their own apps, they don’t give the user any control. A smart circuit setup can monitor charging levels while also providing load control. O’Shea said the Lumin system remains on “watch mode” to automatically govern loads. It makes sure the home’s microgrid doesn’t prematurely run out of backup power or exceed the battery’s output rating — something that many end-users don’t give a second thought.
“Imagine driving a car without a fuel gauge. What’s more, the car starts driving itself whenever the power goes out, regardless of how much gas is in the tank,” O’Shea said. “You just spent [upwards of] $20,000 on a battery backup system to make sure the car doesn’t run out of gas. It really isn’t acceptable to leave it up to chance whether or not that car runs out of gas, especially given that it starts itself and runs automatically when the power goes out.”
O’Shea said it’s the responsibility of energy management technology like Lumin’s to protect customers from “running out of gas” unexpectedly or too quickly.
Both Lumin and Span have met the UL standard for energy management equipment (UL 916), while Span also passes UL 67 as a regular electrical panel. The next hurdle for these smart circuit companies is wider market adoption. Brawner with esaSolar thinks that’s only a matter of time.
“For PV monitoring, homeowners want to see insights on if their system is producing power and if there are any issues. After a few months, it becomes like watching paint dry. For storage, the monitoring applications are very much the same,” Brawner said. “That is the problem that Lumin solves. For a homeowner, the Lumin is providing real-time engaging information to bridge the gap between technical monitoring and home energy use.”