Podcast: Impact of Orange Button on Solar Asset Management Software

August 22, 2017

Welcome to the Solar O&M Insider, the first podcast series dedicated to solar PV operations, maintenance and asset management.  This series is brought to you by Alectris, a global solar asset care innovation firm and is hosted by Glenna Wiseman of Identity3.

The role of software in solar performance management is a hot topic in the industry.  At the recent Intersolar Solar Asset Management Summit organized by The SunSpec Alliance, software and its critical role in asset management was a central theme.

In this episode, we’re joined by a panel who contributed to the Intersolar North America event to dive into the role of software in solar portfolio management.

Episode guests include Joe Cunningham, Director of Operations at Sunny Energy LLC; Jon Previtali, VP Environmental Finance at Wells Fargo and Laks Sampath, US and LATAM Country Manager at Alectris.

This episode of the Solar O&M Insider features:

  • Siloed Software and Disparate Platforms
  • Managing the Wells Fargo Solar and Wind Portfolio
  • Data Implications of the Orange Button Initiative
  • Deploying the Orange Button Taxonomy to Streamline Reporting and Create Standardization
  • Using Orange Button to Get DER Reporting Right from the Beginning


Welcome to the Solar O&M Insider, the first podcast series dedicated to solar PV operations, maintenance and asset management. This series is brought to you by Alectris, a global solar asset care innovation firm. I’m Glenna Wiseman of Identity3, your host.

The role of software in solar performance management is a hot topic in the industry these days. At the recent InterSolar solar asset management summit organized by the SunSpec Alliance, software and its critical role in asset management was essential theme.

In this episode, we’re joined by a panel who contributed to the InterSolar event to dive into the role of software in solar portfolio management. We are very pleased to welcome Joe Cunningham, director of operations at the EPC firm Sunny Energy LLC, Jon Previtali, VP of Environmental Finance at Wells Fargo and Laks Sampath, US and Latin America country manager at Alectris.

Welcome to the show, gentlemen.

Men: Thank you for having us.

Glenna: Joe, let’s start with you. You’ve been involved with SunSpec for over five years and in the industry a lot longer. Can you share what takeaways from the InterSolar event related to software really struck you as critical to the industry?

Siloed Software and Disparate Platforms
Joe: Sure. Thank you, Glenna, and that’s a great question. It seems that a lot of the good companies were there presenting. A lot of them software companies with very good software products, but it sounded like nobody felt that they had a product that was complete system that could satisfy all customer needs. Possibly the companies that specialized in a certain process area had the most traction with customers, but customers seem to have their own needs, their own wants, so not really a standardized platform that would satisfy even a majority of companies. It tells me that the software is still very much a custom product, with very little standardization. And perhaps the more standardization starting even at the data taxonomy level such as the work that we’re doing with the Department of Energy’s Orange Button effort can help drive more standardization and software platforms.

Managing the Wells Fargo Solar and Wind Portfolio
Glenna: You are bringing up excellent points that I want to circle back with a little bit. The issues you’re bringing up around siloed data and non-standardization are really critical. Let’s get some input from everybody and then circle back to that if everyone is good with that. Jon, can you tell us a little bit about your solar portfolio? It’s quite large at Wells Fargo, and what software tools you are currently using on the performance side?

Jon: We’ve been financing wind and solar power projects for about 10 years, and we have a portfolio of about 325 distributed generation solar power projects and roughly 25 utility scale solar power projects. Unlike an operator, we as a bank do not operate projects directly. We’re actually prevented from doing that under federal law, but we rely on operators and asset managers to do that work on our behalf. We receive data from the operators and the asset managers and also from other banks who are monitoring the expenses and revenue of our projects. We have multiple data streams that are coming into the bank, and we use that data to monitor the performance of the projects both on an individual project basis and on a fund level or portfolio basis. And we monitor both the energy production and the economics of each one of the projects. We consolidate all of this data into quarterly reports, reports that we incidentally call “tear sheets,” and also annual reviews.

You asked what software we use. Unfortunately, right now we don’t have a common platform for doing that. And so really the software that we use includes Excel and Word and .pdf, just anything that you would see in a normal office. We do have a database we use to track some of the information, particularly the accounting information. It’s our system of record, and that software was pretty much custom developed within the bank. We use an accounting mechanism for a good portion of our solar power projects and all of our wind power projects that’s called HLBV, otherwise known as Hypothetical Liquidation Book Value. And then there’s a leasing platform that specializes in HLBV accounting that we’ve integrated our own database with. And that platform is called ABC, and it’s from a company called Warren & Selbert. It’s a customized and unique platform for HLBV and leasing industry. But so other than that, we don’t really use any sort of software designed for use to support solar asset management or O&M.

Another thing to bear in mind is that we, as a bank, have very strict security requirements. Although there are some very nice emerging asset management platforms out there, and available for demonstration at InterSolar and I’m sure will be at SPI, it’s unlikely that we would use an asset management platform like that because it would not exist within our firewall. However, we would gladly be recipients of data that our operators and our asset managers would provide to us through these third-party asset management platforms, or these software platforms. That would not be a problem at all. We just probably would not send any of our data up into the Cloud for use with those asset management platforms.

Data Implications of the Orange Button Initiative
Joe mentioned the Orange Button initiative, which is something that I am very hopeful will help streamline the data exchange that we do. Without going into too much detail, we do have an incredible burden on us, on our portfolio management staff in going out and gathering the data from all these different sources that I had mentioned before. Data comes to us in many different formats. Excel, .pdf, Word, various portal, etc. And we have a small staff of people who go out and grab that data, literally copy and paste it into Excel for use in those quarterly and yearly reports that I mentioned before, and that’s a very arduous process. tI is an issue that is causing an inability for us to scale. There’s stability in our staff, but the work is very menial in nature as you’d expect, but we expect our staff to do that work, but also make some of the most important decisions that need to be made about managing these assets. So, there’s a contradiction there. We hire staff who have exceptional engineering and business backgrounds because they need to make those decisions but at the same time, we’re asking them to do this very menial labor. I’d like to get to a point using streamlined techniques like data interoperability techniques and taxonomies like the Orange Button to eventually achieve a goal where this data just comes to us automatically and is put right into our database. Then we can generate the reports automatically and the people can spend the time actually just looking at them and analyzing the reports as opposed to creating them.

The other thing I’ll mention is this same sort of data harmonization, if you will, can also be used for project finance. I’ve been talking about portfolio management up until this time, but we also have a tremendous burden in acquiring data from disparate sources, hunting through sometimes thousands of pages of documents in order to get data for the purpose of performing due diligence on projects that we finance. I’m hoping that the Orange Button initiative can also streamline the project finance process as well.

Glenna: The Orange Button, which is a really good topic for us to dive deeper into on our series. From your point of view, if that Orange Button data could be part of every single reporting platform that you get from who knows how many operators for the almost 400 different assets that you just described, it would be the consistent thread that would reduce the level of menial task your team does, correct?

Jon: There’s no question that that would improve the ability to get that data in a regular format we can accept and put into our database without that sort of copying and pasting that goes on now. Not only would it be great if all these platforms, all these asset management and operational platforms out there used the Orange Button, but also that the equipment that we’re actually installing on site, part of the solar power projects, the inverters, the data acquisition systems, the SCADA systems and so forth, also sent out data in a common format so we can seek a consistency in data. There’s would never be any sort of like breakdown in data or need to sort through the data or replicate the data in a different way.

Glenna: This is just such a huge side of our industry that I’m very excited we continue to tackle this software and data conversation. Jon, because you’re on the recipient end of all of this data and all of these reporting, how many different kinds of reporting systems do you see for those 400 or so assets?

Jon: It really depends on the number of project development partners who we’ve worked with in the past. I say that’s the strongest correlation, because each project developer has their own business system that they use to generate what are called monthly operating reports, which is the conglomeration of the data that we receive. I would say probably we have 10 different platforms that produce monthly operating reports for us. Just an estimate. It varies depending on the consolidation of the industry. So sometimes what’ll happen is that one company will buy multiple other companies and then they’ll consolidate those other companies’ platforms into one. But I would say on average we have about 10.

Glenna: Joe, how many are you using?

Joe: That’s a good question. We have several monitoring platforms. We have several finance platforms. So, we’re on the order of 10 to 12 different software platforms that we’re using.

Glenna: To manage how many assets?

Joe: We’re right around 1,000 assets.

Glenna: It doesn’t really matter how big or small they are. They still have to be managed, right?

Joe: They all have to be managed. There is a difference between a residential system and a large commercial or utility system in how minute you have to get with the data that you’re analyzing, but basically the functions are the same.

Glenna: Laks, how many approximately…how many sites is Alectris managing right now?

Laks: We manage 200 plus sites on a single platform.

Glenna: We begin to see the scale of the problem here in the industry, right? Let’s move to you Laks, because we’ve got a lot of topics here we can circle and we’re just going to be able to touch on some of them and dive in a little deeper maybe at another time on others.

Laks, you did a mini keynote at the InterSolar event on this topic of software. What were the two or three main concepts that you touched on there, and how they relate to what we’re talking about here?

Laks: It’s perfect. I think Joe started out really well and Jon wrapped that up as to what I was going to speak on which essentially is multiple platforms. That is the fundamental issue here. When you talk of multiple platforms, it’s not just multiple platforms alone, but you start diving into monitoring. There are multiple platforms. You dive into finance, there are multiple platforms. And you dive into CMMS, there are multiple platforms. Essentially, how do you consolidate all of that into a single integrated dashboard? Jon talked about multiple monitoring systems as did Joe. Any time you want to see a problem or if you’re trying to manage a particular site, you have to go to that monitoring platform to figure out what’s going on.

A platform like Alectris allows you to integrate all of the monitoring into a single dashboard as well as all the alerts, the root cause analysis, trouble ticketing, resolution and reporting all happen from a single platform. Hence, for portfolio managers who have given us the task of managing their portfolios, it doesn’t matter how many different monitoring platforms there are or how many different other reporting platforms there are because we get all of that data and we provide them with single reporting structure. This also helps in the overall management of the power plants simply because what you get is data. Just this morning I was listening to another webinar and they were talking about converting data into information which is nice, but I think there are two further steps to actually managing these assets. From information, how do you convert that to knowledge? And from knowledge, how do you get it to wisdom? I’ll touch upon the people a little bit later, but essentially that’s what we do and that’s what we found in the conference as well is how many different platforms there were, and how many different things that people have to manage in order to get the kind of reports that Jon was talking about.

Deploying the Orange Button Taxonomy to Streamline Reporting and Create Standardization
Glenna: Jon, the Orange Button initiative was discussed in depth at the event. What, from your point of view, needs to happen for that Orange Button data to make its way to you? I know that’s a big question and it’s a short amount of time we’re trying to cover the subject but from your point of view, what would you tell the industry they should be working on?

Jon: They should just be prepared to use the Orange Button taxonomy when it comes out later this year to essentially define the data in terms that are consistent with this Orange Button taxonomy. We’ll be able to basically import their data. The taxonomy is basically like a dictionary. It’s a list of terms and definitions that a number of working groups have contributed to. I’ve contributed probably, maybe 500 terms that we use inside the bank for tracking, for monitoring and reporting purposes. And so once that list is available, then software developers can start using that input the data they export to us in this common format that we’ll be able to absorb essentially through an API that will be set up to accept data in the Orange Button taxonomy. And then that API will be essentially the bridge between data that exists outside the bank’s firewall and our systems inside the bank’s firewall. And so that API will accept data in that Orange Button taxonomy form, and then bring it into our firewall and put it into our database.

Glenna: And all of your assets are U.S. or not?

Jon: Yes. They’re all U.S. because we’re a tax equity investor so the assets have to be inside the United States to qualify for the investment tax credit and accelerate depreciation.

Glenna: The Orange Button is going to relate only to the United States? Just for our listeners. It’s applicable globally or it’s only the US?

Jon: It’s applicable globally. In fact, it’s based on a taxonomy that was originally developed for the Securities and Exchange Commission to standardize U.S. GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles accounting. And using a platform called XBRL which stands for stands for eXtensible Business Reporting Language. We’re using the same platform as U.S. GAAP accounting, this XBRL platform. And what’s interesting about XBRL is that it is the same platform now being used internationally for multiple taxonomies that apply to different countries’ accounting systems, business systems, and government business systems. It’s used internationally already.

The other thing to note is that XBRL itself, for software developers listening, is a version of XML, which is a very common way to exchange data. But it is, some would say, an old-fashioned way of exchanging data. Another goal of the Orange Button initiative is to convert the Orange Button taxonomy from XBRL to JSON, and JSON is a much more modern way of exchanging data that is far less processor intensive. For the software developers listening out there, it’s not just going to be in XML, it’s also going to be in JSON.

Glenna: We can start to get a glimpse of how incredibly impactful that will be, right?

Jon: Yes.

Glenna: I can hear you cheering over there.

Jon: Definitely. I suspect that we will see kind of a reduction in the number of utility scale projects in the coming years as the investment tax credit sunsets from 30% down to 10%. But we’re going to continue to see a huge ramp up in distributed generation. Solar power projects on rooftop and parking canopies and whatnot. Bloomberg New Energy Finance also thinks this is going to be the case. As we move away from these individual giant utility scale projects which are great, into this world where we have many hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of distributed generation projects, we’re going to need this sort of common data infrastructure in order to do both project finance and performance. And monitoring the performance through portfolio management of these projects. Without the common data infrastructure that the Orange Button initiative will provide, we’re not going to be able to essentially respond to the demand for project finance in the distributed generation category.

Glenna: We haven’t even discussed storage and microgrids. So very cool.

Jon: Yes.  We’re trying to get data for energy storage systems in there in the near term. I’m hopeful that will occur as well. But right now, it’s just focused on solar.

Using Orange Button to Get DER Reporting Right from the Beginning
Glenna: Joe, you brought up the whole issue of silos and how there’s all these different platforms and they don’t work together. Let’s stay on this Orange Button theme, how do you see Orange Button data helping to overcome those kinds of issues?

Joe: Today, we’ve had to build our own custom platform to manage the business. But that platform needs to integrate one way or another, and a lot of it is manually with the other platforms that we work with whether they’re financial, or monitoring systems, or whatever. Part of the problem there is mapping data fields. It’s easy to say an inverter is an inverter. But Orange Button is a whole lot more than just, “This is an inventor made by such and such manufacturer, the model, such and such.” All of the characteristics of the inverter that are important to the asset manager, the EPC, the owner, the warranty companies, providers and so on, also come along with the inverter identification. And that…having that taxonomy identified, defined so that everybody’s using it the same way eliminates our need to have to map everything together. Because it’s essentially already mapped, now we can start using the data from the systems if that’s done ahead of time.

A couple of things on the international portability of the data, the taxonomy. This isn’t a new standard that’s being developed. Taxonomy is a conglomeration of data, definitions from the existing standards. A lot of those are international standards such as from the IEC. We’re actually trying to make the taxonomy something that would be universal throughout the world. We can’t dictate that that can be done, but if we use standards and specifications that are pretty much standardized in the world, we feel that that at least helps to get there.

There was a little bit of talk about distributed generation resources. Hundreds or thousands of systems and other assets. And there’s a whole new business of the DER aggregation and management of those assets. Not as an individual asset, not as a financial concern, but more as a service to the grid and to utility companies as well as the customers. If there’s no standardization developed before those management tools are built, my concern is that there’s going to be a whole lot of miscommunication in trying to manage aggregated systems, aggregated DERs in the industry. I think that’s another huge area that we have a chance to get it right if we consider that going into it.

Glenna: Laks, let’s hear from your point of view from the developer, the side of the Alectris that’s involved with software development. How do you see the Orange Button data stream impacting your business?

Laks: The biggest impact it’ll have for us is that now will know what kind of taxonomy we should follow in providing the data. Today, all of our reports are customizable, so if you have multiple power plants developed by multiple different EPCs with different monitoring systems, we still provide a uniform report. But that is based upon what the asset owner wants to see or the financing entity wants to see. But with the taxonomy like the Orange Button, it’ll help us streamline and it’ll make my life easier because then I won’t have to give five different reports to five different plant owners. I can simply say, “This is the taxonomy. This is how everybody wants it reported. Here you are.” So that makes things much more uniform.

Thank you. Joe Cunningham, Jon Privateli and Laks Sampath for creating this panel discussion, if you will, here on the Solar O&M Insider.

Thank you, listeners, for joining us for this session on solar performance management.  You can access more information about the SunSpec Alliance at sunspec.org and Intersolar North America at intersolar.us.  Email us at marketing(at)alectris.com to send us your ideas for topics and guests for the series.

I’m Glenna Wiseman. The Solar O&M Insider podcast series is brought to you by Alectris at Alectris.com.