Actionable data: An interview with Draker Charles "Chach" Curtis on the merger of Solar Power Technologies and a new approach to PV asset management

Charles "Chach" Curtis. Image source: Draker Labs
Charles "Chach" Curtis. Image source: Draker Labs

by Solar Server International Correspondent Christian Roselund

Charles "Chach" Curtis joined Draker Labs as CEO in 2009, bringing over 20 years of experience in corporate finance and venture backed growth companies, and over 10 years of experience in renewable energy.

From 2000 to 2007, Chach was the CFO and VP of Sales and Business Development at Northern Power Systems, a developer and integrator of alternative and renewable energy systems. At Northern, he founded and led the distributed generation sales group, which became the primary growth driver of the company.

He has also served as COO for Creative Microsystems Corporation, a nanotechnology development lab focused on solar cell development, and as an independent consultant for an emerging waste to energy technology developer to assist with strategic planning, business development, project development, and capital formation.

In 2012, Chach was named the Small Business Administration Vermont Small Business Person of the Year for his outstanding leadership at Draker.

 

Solar Server: Draker has been around for 13 years, as the first company to offer independent monitoring and performance analysis for PV plants. With Draker's established presence, what was it about Solar Power Technologies (SPT) and its suite of products that was attractive to your company?

Charles Curtis: I would say that it was the strategic link between the two products first and foremost. Draker has been offering AC-side monitoring and diagnostics for years, as you have pointed out. What the customers are looking for is really more detailed granular data that allows them to manage a bunch of larger portfolio of assets more efficiently.

So what we really liked about SPT's product, the DC-side monitoring and diagnostics, was the ability to not just identify under-performing projects, but to really trouble-shoot them very cost-effectively and quickly.

 

Solar Server: How will this affect Draker's existing product lines and services? Will the Clarity suite of products merge with Draker's offerings in new product lines?

Charles Curtis: The two product offerings will merge, we will be demonstrating an integrated product offering that takes the best of Draker and SPT and puts them together in a single user interface. We will be shipping that product in October, so it is coming together very quickly.

The two will merge. Again, the merger on the product side is really taking Draker's AC monitoring, asset management tools and controls for the larger projects and merging that together with Solar Power Technologies' DC module monitoring and diagnostics.

The end result, we feel, is really the first enterprise-level solution on the market that allows the customer to not just monitor their site, but actively manage their site all the way from the panel to the grid (P2G). No one else is the market is taking that kind of enterprise-level approach yet and we are excited to be the first guys to get there.

 

Solar Server: To go a little more broadly, what trends do you see in the monitoring and performance analysis space?

Charles Curtis: Some of that I've touched on already, I think the key trend that we are seeing is a transition away from simple state acquisition and distribution, which is what a lot of the monitoring providers do today, is really more to a managed service model, and that has been driven by the customer, who is building bigger products, bigger portfolios of bigger projects and has a lot more dollars at risk in the performance of those projects.

They need actionable data, they need real intelligence to help manage those projects, and not just a dump of raw data that they then have to figure out what to do with. So the focus for us again is putting together this enterprise-level suite that gives them not raw data, but very intelligent analytics and automated diagnostics, automated fault mitigation.

Really the goal for us is to provide a virtual operations center, which allows the customer to manage across a much larger fleet of projects with fewer and fewer resources.

They don't want, customers don't want to maintain a whole control room with tens of people staring at screens monitoring the projects, they want to get rules-based alerts that tell them where there is a problem, exactly what the problem is within the array, physically where it is located, what spare parts they need, and automatically dispatch an operations and maintenance crew to the site to fix it, if and when such corrective maintenance is cost-justified relative to improvement in the array’s output.

We don't have that 100% in place a week after the merger, but that it exactly where we are going is to create this virtual network operations center that allows us again for much more efficient management of large portfolios of projects.

 

Solar Server: The press release accompanying this merger, you note that the two companies are a good fit geographically. What markets is Draker currently operating in, and what markets do you seek to expand to?

Charles Curtis: Today Draker is focused on North America primarily, the U.S. and Canada. The reason that it is a good geographic fit today is that the market for solar, domestically here in North America, is expanding. It used to be focused here in California, and then it expanded to the mid-Atlantic states, New York, New Jersey.

We're seeing it really expand broadly from there, the Southwest is a hot area right now, for obvious reasons. Arizona and New Mexico, they have a great solar resource. They've now got the incentives and other programs in place now that are driving growth within those markets.

So for us having a team closer to the customer in those markets, Solar Power Technologies is based in Texas, and certainly closer to the customer than we are, with Draker's historical headquarters back in Vermont. That's a very good thing for us.

Over time, and we want to get there as fast as we can, we see ourselves expanding internationally as other markets develop. Historically, the international markets have been in Europe, those markets are actually slowing down now, and we are seeing significant growth in Asia and South America and India. So Draker has our sights set on those markets and is selectively targeting customers in those markets today.

The combined product and service offering by putting Draker and Solar Power Technologies together we think gives us a more differentiated and competitive product to go after those new market opportunities. That's again relative to the existing competition that is out there today.

 

Solar Server: Is there anything that we didn't cover about Draker and Solar Power Technologies's products and approach?

Charles Curtis:
I think the key thing is really that enterprise-level solution from the panel to the grid. The combined solution really covers everything, starting with performance forecasting before the site is even built, to monitoring, reporting, diagnostics, control and optimization for any solar project.

The thing we didn't really touch on yet is optimization. There are, as you know, a number of optimizers out there from Tigo, SolarEdge and others. They all rely on 100% deployment of the optimizers onto every single panel that is in the array. In contrast, Solar Power Technologies brings to Draker a different methodology for optimization, and that is selective deployment on the optimizers on just the portions of the array that are subject to shading or mismatches, where you are likely to get significant benefit of up to 20% or greater.

Typically, you can get that type of benefit from optimization, but you won't get that across the entire site. You will only get that in areas affected by shading or mismatches or other faults.

So deploying selectively you get a much more cost-effective solution. Full deployment of optimization can costs as much as $0.20 (USD) per watt, as the installed cost of these projects has fallen to 2.00 per watt in the case of some of the larger installations, seeing that kind of premium for optimization on every panel isn't in the cards for every developer.

So we feel we have a much more cost-effective solution on the optimization front that complements very nicely the P2G enterprise solutions that we talked about earlier.

So a typical deployment for us would be to deploy the combined DC and AC monitoring solution that we talked about earlier, study the array, understand its performance, and then recommend selective deployment of optimization in the portions of the total array that help you most.

That may be only 5% or 10% of the total array. But again that 5% to 10% is going to be where you are going to get the most bang for your buck for the additional investment in optimization.