April 9, 2020
Homeowners don’t think much about their electrical panel until the power goes out.
But the device plays a critical role in our day to day lives, taking in energy from the grid and distributing it out to different rooms and appliances.
It hasn’t changed much in 50 years. It is, as Span CEO Arch Rao says, “an outdated but necessary device” in every building: brutally simple, able to toggle on and off without fine understanding as to how the power is flowing, or the ability adjust it.
It was due for an upgrade. An increasing number of homes are accelerating the transition to a clean-energy future with on-site solar and battery, and homes themselves are getting smarter.
Rao is founder and CEO of the startup Span, which is transforming the smart electrical panel, adding brains and bringing down the integration costs of solar, storage, and electric vehicles all at once.
Span is part of both the Shell GameChanger AcceleratorTM Powered by NREL (GCxN) as well as its sister program at NREL, the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2). With the two partnerships, Span will support product commercialization through NREL research showing the benefits Span can bring to the grid, and more importantly to homes at scale.
“The Span panel integrates key components of the home electrical system in order to power a home with solar and batteries, and to support electrical vehicle charging and more electrified appliances,” Rao says.
“If we really want to have a serious solution to climate change, these clean energy technologies can’t be aspirational for the customer, but as common as any other home appliance.”
But how can an electrical panel usher in a clean-energy future?
An innovation born of thousands of solar installations
Rao and several other members of the Span team draw from their experience as members of the Powerwall team at Tesla Energy, where Rao was head of product development. Because the Powerwall is usually deployed with solar PV systems, Rao oversaw thousands of solar installations around the country in his years at Tesla.
During his time at Tesla, they noticed a trend: solar systems were growing from 4-5 KW to an average of 10 KW. Larger systems – and systems with battery backup – often required the homeowner to install new, larger electrical panels.
Currently, about 15 percent of solar installs require a panel replacement. That can go up to 60 percent of installs when the homeowner is adding a battery.
Factor in the coming widespread adoption of electric vehicles, and electrical upgrades to the home are going to become more and more common as a necessity. The Span panel was designed specifically to reduce installation costs for clean energy upgrades and make it easier for solar installers to do their job.
“Even state-of-the-art installations today take up a large amount of wall space, with six or more boxes that need to be installed,” says Evelyn Fisher, Span’s Head of Growth. “By combining multiple pieces of necessary equipment into one box, the Span panel allows an installer to just put in the panel, battery, and inverter. It’s a very significant labor reduction for the installer.”
Speeding up the future
The Span panel does indeed look like the future: it’s a gleaming white panel that bears little resemblance to the standard grey metal box of circuit breakers. With a September 2019 product launch, the company is now focusing on the first wave of customer installations, and on growing a network of certified installers.
Span’s validation work at NREL will be divided up into two projects. The first is testing their panel in the hardware-in-the-loop smart-home simulation systems at NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility, with the support of the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2).
The second, with GCxN support and the help of NREL researcher Shibani Ghosh, will be to investigate the multiple benefits Span’s technology can provide to the grid and utilities at scale.
Span’s software allows for better energy data, monitoring, and controls for home devices, and Ghosh and her team will model the grid-level benefits of widespread adoption.
There’s always a “Why”
Rao himself came to this project after many years developing emerging energy technologies, as a founding engineer at Joby Energy, a co-founder of Verdigris Technologies, and a product leader at Tesla.
“The birth of my first child in 2017 triggered a sense of urgency to develop and validate products that could have a meaningful impact sooner,” said Rao. As a serial entrepreneur, Rao realized that this ruled out working on technologies that could take a decade to mature. There was a need to focus on re-inventing parts of the electrical infrastructure that could help accelerate the adoption of renewable energy, he said.
“Span’s electrical panel is an opportunity for rapid advancement in this area,” he said.
Learn more about Span at its website.