Profiles in Process Improvement: ConnectDER

This is the second installment in our blog series highlighting industry companies and individuals who are doing their part to improve processes across the Energy Efficiency and Solar Industries.

At a Glance

  • Processes improved: Hooking Distributed Energy Resources (DER) into the grid

  • How it saves money: Reductions in wiring labor, hardware costs, logistics, and inspection time

Success can often come out from failure. Whit Fulton, CEO of ConnectDER, found his way to a solution through a problem that ultimately lead to the failure of the mid 2000s start-up he cut his teeth on. The start-up, focused on creating an all-in-one box that included a battery, inverter and EV charger, among other things, was a compelling product with a non-starter price tag. One of the cost centers of that prohibitive pricing was the wiring labor necessary to install the box itself.

At the same time as Whit faced down his start-up demons, the solar industry faced a similar cost problem in connecting systems to the grid. Solar installers faced two primary options--a line-side AC connection (aka a “line-side tap”), or replacing an entire service panel. Both require extensive involvement from an experienced electrician: all houses are wired a little bit differently and the electrician needs to make sense of a potentially labyrinthine array of connectors, busbars and lugs. The costs included in this phase of a solar sale routinely kill deals, especially in the East and Northeast, where installers have to penetrate exterior walls, often leaving damaged drywall and plaster that has to be cleaned up by yet another contractor.

When Whit saw a meter swap while doing a site visit along with a utility, something clicked. “That’s a plug,” he remembers thinking. “There’s more or less a universal interface on every home in the United States and it just struck me: Why can’t we use that to eliminate all the extra cost to create an intercept between the home circuit and the DER circuit?” With that idea in his head, Whit and his team created the “Solar Socket,” now known as the Simple ConnectDER.

A Simpler Way to Integrate DER with the Grid

The DOE SunShot-awarded ConnectDER takes advantage of much more easily swappable meter collars, sidestepping the need for the extensive labor required to perform line-side AC connections and the expensive hardware costs of a new service upgrade. The technology can support the full outflow of a PV system of up to 15kW AC as well as the draw of something like an electric vehicle (EV) system. Even better, the labor can be accomplished entirely outside the home, even on the east coast, where panels are often located behind closed and locked doors.

On the soft cost side, the ConnectDER reduces the likelihood of miswirings. Wiring in the meter collar is simple, as the neutral and ground connections are clearly marked instead of the often messy and badly labeled wiring found on the line-side. The ConnectDER installation process also reduces the complexity of inspections and reduces the number of reinspections necessary. The logistics process is also improved, as the unit can be installed prior to a PV installation by the utility or an electrician so that once the PV is mounted and installed, it can simply tie into the existing ConnectDER.

Reimagining ConnectDER as a data hub

As the DER model continues to expand across the country, the need for more sophisticated management technologies expands. Building on the existing platform, ConnectDER has added Smart ConnectDER to their product line--a cloud-connected meter giving utilities and consumers greater visibility into usage and PV production. The improvements open up the space for alternative tariff models and grid management in a way that traditional metering can’t offer.

“Ultimately we want to make the distributed model as competitive as it can be with large scale,” says Whit.

Conclusions

While Whit has a healthy respect for the value of the solar industry’s installation professionals, he believes that simplified processes lead to a better product. “The more steps we can eliminate for the installer, the more we make solar hardware plug-and-play, the better off the industry will be as a whole,” he says. “The whole industry is moving in this direction, and collectively if we can get to a place where things are simplified, we will hit a tipping point in terms of cost and application that I think will lead to exponential growth.”


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KIT KOHLER

Kit has spent the last three years as a cleantech marketing executive after transitioning from over ten years experience in media and marketing for Fortune 500 companies. He brings a passionate interest in user stories to his role as marketing and projects lead at Sustainabilist.