At SfunCube, the world’s only solar startup incubator, we’re lucky to work every day with amazing solar entrepreneurs who are helping to move the solar industry forward. What better way to highlight what they’re doing for solar than to profile their innovative startups? This first part in our series shows what can be done when an individual with a great idea has the motivation and confidence to pursue it.
When Daniel Roesler started shopping around his idea for reducing solar soft costs, he didn’t know how it would be received. The typical reaction he got? “Thank God you exist!”
It’s not surprising. The startup he founded, Utility API, is solving a real pain point: getting a utility customer’s usage data.
Solving a pain point
This pain point is just small enough, yet complicated enough to fix, that most installers wouldn’t want to deal with it themselves — or even be able to.
But making it happen is technically feasible, says Roesler. The only real barrier is the customer — whether it’s a business or a homeowner, most potential solar customers aren’t familiar with how to access their billing data.
The solution? An automated download of a customer’s bill history from the utility, with a solar-friendly interface. The solar company gets formatted data they can use for estimation and monitoring — and can interact with just Utility API, not the utilities. For an installer working in more than one utility area, this is especially valuable, giving them just one point of contact rather than several.
“The overhead of collecting this data is a huge soft cost now,” says Roesler. Customer acquisition and data collection, he points out, now account for 48 cents/watt, about 25% of solar soft costs.
His biggest challenge has been finding ways to get the right data quickly, in order to get a quote to a lead as soon as possible. But the utilities in California, where he’s starting out, are technically savvy and are helpfully beginning to come up with their own interfaces.
Roesler’s prediction: A service like his could help generate instant quotes. Imagine a solar salesperson working out of a Home Depot being able to instantly qualify a homeowner. As the industry gets more technical and automated, he says, we’ll be able to get a credit history on the spot like the auto industry does. We just need to remove the bottlenecks.
“A universal utility interface is a destiny for the industry,” adds Roesler. “I want to be that interface.”
The entrepreneurial spirit
It takes entrepreneurs like Roesler to move the solar industry forward. And they can come out of diverse areas. A fine example of this himself, Roesler has a background in both chemical engineering and programming, and has worked at startups before.
One of those startups, which made a fitness app, was pretty far from the solar industry. After a start in air quality testing, Roesler joined some friends who created the app, as CTO. Fitocracy went from a small startup run by three people to a legitimate product with over 1 million users. The experience showed him that if you have a good idea and the motivation and confidence to pursue it, you can accomplish a lot.
For him, that meant following his passion and training into environmental work — so he left the fitness app world and founded his own solar startup.
This might seem like a bold move. As Roesler sees it, the stakes aren’t that high in attempting a startup: “The worst thing that can happen,” he points out, “is that your startup fails.”
Next steps toward a culture change
What are Roesler’s goals for Utility API? For starters, to shave 10 – 20 cents/watt off the installed price of solar, ideally within two years or less. “For a small company to have such a big impact is huge,” says Roesler. “I want solar companies to start treating data access as trivial, something they take for granted,” he adds. “This will be a culture change.”
So far, Utility API is working with the three large IOUs in California, with plans to expand aggressively around the U.S. and eventually, internationally.
Customers’ electric usage data has been accessible forever, Roesler notes. But getting it hasn’t been efficient. With Utility API, the only hurdle that remains is getting a customer’s authorization to access the data, a simple step. Then it takes just five minutes to get the data — something that used to take a week.
Getting to this point has taken Roesler only about five months. He’s now offering beta access to Utility API for solar companies to test, with plans to start expanding coverage — including in areas outside utility territories.
The beta will answer a couple questions for Roesler: Am I making something useful? And what can I do to make it more useful? At Fitocracy, he learned that getting people to try out your product will create the best product.
Moving solar forward
What Utility API is doing, Roesler says, is “one of things that has to happen to move solar forward. It’s not the be all and end all to soft costs, but one of many steps. SfunCube is a multi-vector attack on soft costs.”
Roesler shares the enthusiasm that’s palpable among the solar entrepreneurs at SfunCube. “I’m very excited about the next six months, and the next two years,” he says, “because at the end of this I think the solar industry will be a lot better off. Having these kinds of innovations will be a huge turning point for solar as whole – using techniques and technologies and methodologies that Google and Twitter and Facebook use on a daily basis, that will be very useful to the solar industry. A lot of engineers from tech are turning to sustainability, and saying, We don’t have to just make the next Instagram app – we can apply what we’ve learned to a sustainability company and have the growth we experienced in the Internet.”
“The Internet took twenty years to go from existing to being everywhere,” he points out. “The same thing will happen with energy. Our generation will be defined by energy.”
And energy sources will not be as we know them now. “In our lifetime, renewable tech will take over and be the default standard. We will have to completely change where we get our energy. The ceiling is just so ridiculously high — that’s one of things that excites me about cleantech. So much disruption can happen.”