In Blog, Monitoring

Mark Cavanagh from MC Electrical and Nigel Morris from Solar Analytics discussed Solar Analytics’ innovative approach to solar monitoring, including its comparative performance analysis, automation for fault detection, and ongoing commitment to refining algorithms for accuracy and reliability in providing data-driven insights for solar system owners.

Video Transcript

Mark: Today, I’ve brought in my mate and solar industry veteran Nigel Morris from Solar Analytics, and we’re going to talk about Nigel’s favourite topic, solar monitoring. So Solar Analytics is Australia’s leading independent monitoring platform. And Nigel called me up a couple of weeks ago telling me about this free offer that you’ve got on for customers.

Nigel: Yeah, a free trial. We do, we do.

Mark: It’s a no strings attached free trial. And I thought I might as well get you to come up here and talk about it yourself.

Nigel: My favourite subject, solar monitoring.

Mark: Okay. So, Nigel, I started out – I haven’t told you this, but I started out in 2008, before I started MC Electrical in the solar industry, trying to develop a solar monitoring platform for Solar Schools.

Nigel: Really?

Mark: Yeah. And so, I travelled around Queensland, and it was terrible. Like it was so the Dark Ages, you know, Stone Ages of solar monitoring and but since then, since around about 2015, correct me if I’m wrong, but I reckon every inverter on the market has their own WiFi and monitoring platform so… why do you guys still exist?

Nigel: That’s a good question and I think the shortest answer I can give you is because solar monitoring is the only thing we do. We are a 100% solar monitoring software company. And so whilst there are other products out there, it’s secondary to most people’s businesses, whereas we are 100% focused on it. So that means that we can hopefully build a better product, put more features in.

Mark: Build a better product. And yeah, I think I think you have done that as and we’ll go into those features later that the reason that we use Solar Analytics on some of our installs but give us a little bit of a background like, where did you guys start up, where you came from.

Nigel: The tech and the idea behind Solar Analytics came out of a solar company that’s still around today, has gone through a few transformations called Suntech and Suntech around more than ten years ago were trying to use monitoring to diagnose technical problems in some of their modules posed by performance, potential induced degradation, and in trying to determine whether they had a problem in the field, they worked out that there was an algorithm that could detect a change in the output curve of a solar panel, which was an indicator of PID.

Mark: Yes, the degradation of a solar panel, correct?

Nigel: Correct. And it had an absolute unique signature. If you looked at the data carefully enough and knew what you were looking at. So that was what the foundation of the company was, was hang on, we can actually use algorithms and code to detect problems in solar systems before someone might otherwise see them. Long story short, the company spun out just on ten years ago, and since then all we’ve done is just develop out all the features and functions that we’ve got. We became an independent company, and our four founders spun the company out of Suntech, bought the IP and the rights that they developed within Suntech and made it Solar Analytics.

Mark: Yeah. Okay. And so now what’s the team made up of? It’s more than just you?

Nigel: I am a very small cog in the wheel. We’ve got about 40 staff scattered all over the world. Covered means that, you know, our team can be anywhere in the world. So, we’ve got developers all over the place. You’ve got support, people all over the place. And we are software company, so we don’t necessarily need to be in an office. But Redfern-based, Redfern in Sydney.

Mark: I’m going to tell you what I think of the features about Solar Analytics and the reason that we’ve used it in the past and in the future and you can tell me if I’m wrong or whatever. So, I think the first reason that we jumped on it was this hardware. You’ve just told me this is really old, old hardware.

Nigel: It’s an old model.

Mark: Oh, I never knew that. I just found one lying around the office and picked it up. And so where you had these CTs that would pick up the power that’s flowing in and out of your house and from your inverter, and then that’s got a 4G, well this one had a 3G card sim card to send it to your monitoring. So, it was completely independent of what the inverter was doing. But it would be able to tell you the monitoring. And the reason that we used this from day one, mainly with customers that didn’t have WiFi or they were tech nerds and they didn’t want us to tap into their WiFi network or ambulance stations or whatever that we’ve done that wanted to be independent. So that was a cool thing. But you’ve told me recently in the last year you’re stopping making that product.

Nigel: Well, we don’t make the product. It’s made by an Australian company called Watt Watchers and we’ve been their largest customer and had a wonderful relationship. And for us being a software company, what we always were trying to do was simply get good data. Where can we get good data to do what we want to do? And when we constantly scour the world for the last ten years, always looking at what hardware is out there and kept coming back to this little product because it is such a great product. Yeah, and beautifully for us, made locally and developed locally. So that was our foundation and we started selling the hardware because we needed to make it easy to get access to and we wanted to enable that data getting to us. So we’ve been selling that hardware virtually the whole time the company has been existence. But now we’re at a point where not only do we integrate with this hardware, but we actually integrate with a lot of other products as well. So we’ve stepped away and said, “Look, we don’t need to be in the hardware game. That’s not our play.” Our play has always been “let’s get good software over the top of that”. And so we don’t sell the hardware anymore, but we still love this hardware. It solves a great problem, but we also integrate with a range of other products.

Mark: Right. Okay. So, we still can get this product if we want and use it for Solar Analytics? We just go direct, you know, normally to a wholesaler.

Nigel: That’s right. And grab that gear.

Mark: It just won’t have that pretty Solar Analytics badge on it.

Nigel: Exactly right. But it’s exactly the same hardware has exactly the same functionality and can be integrated into our systems.  What we find is that different products suit different problems. And so, our philosophy now is, “You choose the hardware, we’ll take care of the software”. So, if this works for you and solves the problem that you’ve got at your application or at your site, that’s the product. No problem. We’ll make it work.

Mark: Okay. So the second thing I think and this is probably one of those big features that it does different now, I would say better design than Fronius does is comparative performance. So, I guess I’ll look at it this way. So, if a customer calls me up and says, “Is my solar working?” I can jump into Fronius monitoring and I can check out the DC voltage DC current. You guys actually don’t have that on your platform. I have to jump into Fronius to do that. Yeah, and I can spend a little while and I can tell the customer, “No, everything’s performing fine” or, “No, you’ve got a shaded problem” or, “I would expect better out of the system”. You guys do that a little bit differently. The customer doesn’t have to look at DC Voltage. Well, they can’t for a start, but…

Nigel: This is absolutely one of the core differences. One of our foundational things is that any inverter monitoring platform will tell you what the solar system produced. Okay, you did 20 kilowatt hours today, but if someone thinks there’s something wrong, what they then have to do is say, “Well, okay, we produce 20 kilowatt hours today, but what was the weather? What’s going on in that system? Should it have produced more than 20 kilowatt hours today?” And you, as you just described, you’ve got to do some work or the customer’s got to do some work to work out whether that 20 kilowatt hours was correct. What we do is we use algorithms and satellite data and weather data and benchmark against other systems. So, when we look at the solar system, we’ll say it did 20 kilowatt hours today. But based on everything that we know, we think that system should have done 25, for example. And so, we show an actual and a predicted. And that’s the core difference between us and every other program that that although that’s kind of okay, you go, “Okay, so what?” Well, what the ‘so what’ on that is if there is a drop in performance that small, we can start to see that. And we can show you, an owner, that that something looks like it’s starting to go wrong. So, the goal here is trying to detect small problems before they become big problems because that’s going to cost you money.

Mark: Sure. Yeah. Okay. And it does that. I remember I called you up six months, a year ago, or something like that. And I was doing some testing. So, I used Solar Analytics as my testing instrument when I’m comparing two different inverters because it’s an independent test, but it also has really five-second interval data.

Nigel: Five second interval data, that’s right.

Mark: Five second interval data. So, it’s really good for my testing. I remember going up and going, “Man, I get it. This is really cool, this helped me understand the problem.” And it was just over a period of time that I could go in and look at the data and look at it deeper and go Solar Analytics solved this problem. And I guess that happens. It’s not going to happen all the time, right?

Nigel: No.

Mark: But when that happens, the customer doesn’t have to call me up or be reactive to the problem and wait until I look in and find that power bill’s going wrong. They get an email alert and saying, you know, there’s something wrong with it.

Nigel: That’s right. And you’re moving on to the second part, which I think is a big difference between what we do and what lots of other monitoring companies do, and that is swags of automation. So, the whole goal for us is automate the fault detection, automate all the systems and processes and back ends and where the data and benchmark against the way other systems are performing. Automate all of that and only tell you when there’s something that you really need to know about. So don’t annoy you. Don’t send too many alerts and then make all of that automatic. So the beautiful thing is whether you’re an owner or whether you’re a retailer, you can just count on us to let you know if something’s really going wrong.

Mark: Okay, I’m going to challenge you on that point because anyone in the industry will know that has had a fleet of Solar Analytics customers out there, that it hasn’t been perfect in the past. In fact, like we’ve had a rainy day and then we get alerts from Solar Analytics saying, “Oh, your system’s underperforming.” And I’m like, “Have you looked at the clouds, mate?”

Nigel: And that’s a fair comment. And it’s certainly something what we’re doing is very, very hard. It is very, very hard to do. At a residential level. At a commercial industrial level, you can spend $1,000,000,000, you can get 100% accuracy, right, to get this right at a residential level. And an affordable product is a really big challenge. However, what you’re talking about is mostly really, really extreme weather events. Really sudden big weather events that that are, you know, behaving abnormally or bushfire events where there’s smoke that’s affecting the performance of solar systems, for example. So the good thing is, although we’ve perhaps jumped up and down a little bit too much about underperformance in the past, our algorithms undergo constant, constant refinement. And so, there’s a whole lot of smoothing and diagnostic stuff that goes into our algorithms now that mean that the number of false positives and in that case a false positive now is a very, very rare thing for us. And we’ve also dialled back the noise. So we understand that solar system performance does go up and down and of course rain, weather, clouds and all those things, we deal with them on a daily basis across the planet. So there’s no problem at all with us dealing with that accurately. It’s the really abnormal massive weather events that we see more and more of that we’ve had to build new algorithms to deal with.

Mark: Yeah, sure. And you’re saying this to me the other day that it’s improving and like, I’m not going to take your word for it. So obviously I go to Shane my service manager. Well, I went to my service manager that deals with the issues, you know, and a couple of years ago he was like, “Oh man, we got alerts”, you know, they were false alerts, and he’s like, “Oh yeah, no it’s not a problem anymore.” So, I mean, we’re probably still going to get false alerts. Right?

Nigel: Occasionally there’ll be some abnormality, a scenario that we haven’t dealt with for sure. But the great thing is that, you know, like anyone, like any software business, you know, we’ve got fuzzy logic running in the background. We’ve got 50,000 systems out there now, and some of them as many as ten years old. So, every single day we’re dealing with terabytes of data and terabytes of learning. And all of those lessons constantly build up and enhance what we do and allow us to build better algorithms so just constantly gets better and better and better.

Mark: And that leads us to our next point. The things that are improving. Plan Optimiser. Tell us about this because I reckon this is the best feature of Solar Analytics at the moment.

Nigel: It’s certainly one of the most popular features. Plan Optimiser in simple terms, allows a solar owner to determine whether they’re on the best retail plan and of course, saving money with solar. Everyone buys solar to save money. And one of the key elements of saving with solar is, what is your retail plan? You’re buying, you’re selling, you’re exporting, you’re importing, you’re self-consuming. So, we can show you all of that. But of course, which plan you’re on can make a remarkable difference. In fact, when we did our pilot test using Plan Optimiser, the average solar and it will save an additional $400 a year over and above what their solar system would save them anyway. Just by being on the right plan.

Mark: Can you explain how that works?

Nigel: So in simple terms, when you commission Solar Analytics, you can enter your plan details. So, you tell us what plan you’re on, tell us who you with and then.

Mark: Like tariff 11 charges. You’re paying $0.25 for power, you’re getting a three-cent feed in.

Nigel: That’s right. What are your standing charges? All those things can be built in. You set that up and then what we do is watch what’s happening with your consumption in your generation. And what we scan the entire market for every available plan that’s out there and and run your data over all those other plans and say, well, with your particular usage and generation, is there another plan out there would work better for you? And how much would you say by switching? So, we don’t do switching. We don’t take a commission on switching, we’re 100% unbiased. But what we will do is show you if it’s worth the effort to switch and how much you might save by doing so. And again automatic.

Mark: I’m going to challenge you again because like the last time, when did this rollout?

Nigel: Plan Optimiser? It was about a year ago.

Mark: Yeah, sure. And I remember like you were telling about me about it for a year before that. We were hanging out and it kept getting pushed back because you guys kept on tweaking it. And I remember the first time I tried it out and jumped on there and, “Oh wow, I can save 500 bucks or something like that in this power bill.” And I jump in and that plan doesn’t exist. So, I guess we’ve seen improvements over the time. And it’s one of those things that you’re not going to solve by just getting one coder on there and doing it once. It takes a little bit of time.

Nigel: It’s an ongoing thing. And in fact, the volatility in the Australian energy market is at an all-time high. It’s never been more complicated yet and a number of retailers out there, retailers have gone bust, some have come, some have gone. There’s new ones entering the market with new plans all the time. So one of the big things that we have to do is not only, of course, have the ability to do this analysis for you with a click of a button, but also make sure that all those plans are as up to date as they possibly can be. So we now do a weekly update. And in fact, during the peak of volatility in the Australian retail energy market, we were literally updating them daily. And so, we’d pull plans out, we’d put plans in, change them and of course the algorithms that do the analysis, they also have a whole lot going into the background. So, we will automatically eliminate some that are just garbage or deceptive or whatever else or are never going to help you. And so ,we try and make the choice simple, but give you enough scope. When I did the analysis at my place. Mark, I was eligible for 35 retail plans. So switching is not hard working out. Which of the 35 plans is the best one for me is the hard part.

Mark: To be fair, even if it’s not perfectly accurate, you can do what I do. Oh wow, I can save 500 bucks. Check out the plan. You call them up. “Sorry, that plan finished yesterday.” I’ll go on to the second one. You know, it’s going to at least cut down that process.

Nigel: That’s right. It’s not perfect. And in fact, one of the things I love most about that and I had this exact experience when I decided to change because the advice that I’d seen, I rang the retailer and said, “Right, I want a plan number 32.” And the guy said, “Well, you know, I’ve got this fantastic deal on plan number 36. You should really plan think about plan number 36.” And I could look down the list on Plan Optimiser and I could see plan 36 and see it was going to cost me an extra 50 bucks a year. As a consumer, it gave me all the power in the negotiation with the company that I wanted to change to. And I said, “Man, I’m not taking that plan. I want plan number 32.” And so, I had negotiating power and it put him on the back foot because he said, “You can’t know that.” And I said, “I do know that.” So it was great. Yeah.

Mark: Now that’s a cool tool.  So I guess we’ve sold the product now, I think customers can see the benefit of the product, probably that big one Plan Optimiser, but certainly also for the off chance that, you know, half your system doesn’t work and you don’t notice that, on that comparative data and you’ll pick up on that. Tell us about the freebie that you’ve offered us.

Nigel: Oh. This is a fun one actually, because what we have found over the years, the data shows us this is that, of course, you know, being able to pick the difference between a good monitoring program and perhaps an advanced monitoring program, it’s a hard choice. There’s a lot of decisions consumers are going to make. So what we have learned over the years is when we get our software in front of customers and they get a chance to see it and to have a play around and to understand what it can do for them, they’re much more likely to be willing to pay a little subscription fee and sign up. So we’ve been pushing our 30-day free trial really hard. And in fact, one of the inverter manufacturers that we’re partnered with even pays for a one-year subscription. So, you buy that inverter and it comes with a one-year subscription. That’s GE. And so what we’ve done is, is sort of flipped on our head and said, “Look, what we know is that if we give people a chance to experience it, they’ll understand where the differences are.” And so, our 30-day free trial has now been made super, super easy. In fact, you can literally get it with one click of a button. And just sign up for the 30-day free trial. No obligations, no credit card. Have a go. If you don’t like it, don’t sign up. If you do like it, sign up. So, we might put a QR code on the screen now and we’ll put a link in the bottom so people can get on to that quickly.

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Mark: But I’m skeptical, as you know, always. So, what you’re going to do is you’re going to ask me for my credit card details, and then 30 days later, I’m going to forget about it. And then two years later, I realise that ah…

Nigel: No, we’re not, you don’t need to put your credit card details in to take part in the 30-day trial. So all you do is give us the details. It allows us to sign up and get connected to your system and know where you are. And those basic details that we need to understand the performance.

No credit card details. We’ll keep nudging you along the 30 days and saying your trial is going to end, your trial is going to end. And at that point you can put your credit card details in.

Mark: Pretty cool offer, I reckon. You know, try before you buy genuine trial. No strings attached.

Nigel: The one thing I want to throw in is that getting a site set up, getting connected to Solar Analytics is also something we’ve been working really hard on. We have a new service now called Auto Connect. A couple of inverter manufacturers where I’m working with now, there is a button in the app, so when the solar system’s connected and commissioned, there is literally one button that says, “Add Solar Analytics” and you can connect to us with the click of a button that can be done on a whole different bunch of ways. And owners with existing systems can sign up on a website and do it. You can do it via inverter apps, you can come to Solar Analytics as a solar installer and we can set it up so that automatically happens. So what we’re really trying to do is make it almost an automatic connection might give you a free trial, let you experience it.

Mark: And the other thing is you’re helping out installers or installation companies like myself, and so if an installation company is interested in this for their customers, just get in contact with you?

Nigel: Get in contact with us, and we’ll show you the ways that we can do it.

Mark: Beauty. Okay. Thanks for your time, Nigel. Thanks, mate.

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