Rethinking how we access energy

All of the energy we use in our day-to-day life was, at one point, sourced directly from the Sun, and with the way the environment and the economy is leaning, more and more people will be looking to solar power as a main, direct source of energy. Whit Fulton, CEO of ConnectDER, is one of the people leading the charge to make access to solar power easier and more reasonable for people of all income levels.

ABERMAN: So, tell me a bit about what ConnectDER does, and why did you decide it was something worth doing as an entrepreneur?

FULTON: Alright. So, for ConnectDER, the origins go way back in history. I’ve been in the electric power industry for about 20 years now, working originally on sort of large scale renewable stuff, like wind power and large scale gas power plants, things like that. And I kind of realized that, at some point, there was a shift in the whole technology focus within the industry, toward cleaner, smaller, better, and I really wanted to be part of that whole initiative.

I moved from the large scale stuff to the small scale stuff. And the idea for this really came about when we were working with utilities, and we were trying to put these solar power plants on homes, and there were batteries and all kinds of things that took a ton of time to wire in. A lot of the problems in the solar space have been solved already, you know, financing is much better now. The panel costs are way down, but the actual cost of wiring in this stuff into a home is still pretty high in a lot of cases, and because every home is like a custom job, as everyone was different.

And so, these little custom jobs were expensive, relatively speaking. So, I was working with that utility, and we saw a meter change out. You know that meter on the side of your house, it’s a big bubble, and it sits there and meters your power. But behind that meter, there’s basically a plug that’s just sitting there, and I thought, well, that, we can just use that! That’s the thing to use! It’s a plug, it’s a big plug, it’s for the whole house! You can get all the power right in there, and then you can just put the meter back in front of it.

So, that was the sort of the initiative of the idea that we had. So, we call this thing the ConnectDER. Originally, it was called the Solar Socket, but there are a lot other things out there called Solar Socket. So, we sort of would differentiate a little bit. And the idea behind the term ConnectDER, just so everyone understands, it sounds like it’s kind of a funny word, but it’s actually Connect DER, where DER stands for distributed energy resource, so that can be solar panels. It can be an electric vehicle like a Tesla. It can be a battery storage pack, and these are things that are small, can go anywhere in the grid, and produce power that is fed back into the grid.

ABERMAN: So, if I’m sitting in a house, and I’m tired of paying these utility bills, or if I decided I want to get an electric car, which by the way, I think in the next five to 10 years, most of us are going to have electric cars, the way the industry is changing. How does your technology help consumers do this more effectively?

FULTON: Well, we do a couple of things. The primary idea behind the technology is, right now, the standard way of connecting an electric vehicle or solar panels to your house is through the service panel, where all those circuit breakers are. And that can be in the basement, it can be in the garage, it can be, in the West Coast, it’s oftentimes in the outside of the house.

Which is great for them, but for those of us poor suffering souls on the east coast, where it’s all inside the house, it means a lot of extra wiring, penetrations, sometimes they’re in finished basement spaces. So you punch through that, and leave all this dust everywhere, and there are two problems with that. One is the extra wiring, and two is all the logistics of actually having to be there when the solar guy comes to install.

ABERMAN: I see. So your technology just basically goes around all that, by affixing to the outside of the house, where the utility junction is, so that I don’t have to rewire my house, I can just put your box in.

FULTON: That is exactly right. So basically, we created a plug and play solution that sits behind your electric power meter, which means we have to work with utilities on this, which you know, oftentimes are very concerned about the metering itself. And so, we have a great relationship with a number of retailers we work with, but we’ll get into that a minute. But at the end of the day, what you’re doing is, you’re connecting everything on the outside of the house. No more worry about penetration wiring, or service panel upgrades, which sometimes are needed in order to support the additional power.

ABERMAN: This sounds to me like a great example of an entrepreneur starting a business based on something that they’re passionate about. What’s your biggest challenge? Is it that utilities don’t want to get consumers in the middle? I mean, what is the biggest challenge, because this business sounds to me like a kind of logical thing to do.

FULTON: The biggest challenge is really about the fact that we have two major stakeholders that we work with, and those are the utilities and the solar installers. In places where the solar installers, you know, get the idea. And typically, they get it right away, like this is awesome, we love this, we want to use this. Let’s go and do it. The utilities are often like, whoa, you’re touching our power meter, that’s really where we’re measuring the key interface between the grid and home, and it’s sacred. And it’s like, thou shalt not mess with that.

However, they also realize that these things are coming, distributed resources are coming fast, and they need to have solutions for their customers, to make it easier, better, faster, cheaper, more palatable. And so, the whole tide of utilities is slowly turning toward finding ways to work with DERs more effectively. And at the same time, in order to do that, they say OK, great, within this device, can you give me some more metering, or some more ways to interact with those DERs as they get connected? So, we have a smart version of the device that does that.

The challenge there is, some installers see that as stepping on their turf, as soon as utility starts measuring that, and working with it. So, when they start saying, you know, I really don’t want the utility in my business. You know, this is not great for me. So, in the places where we’ve had great success, like Vermont and Hawaii and Arizona, each one of them has found a way for the installers and the utility to come together and say, oh, well you guys get this, and you guys get this, this is awesome for both of us. Let’s do it

ABERMAN: Which is what you ultimately have to do. Before I let you go, is now a moment where people, notwithstanding protestations that we should protect the coal industry, is now a time we really, as consumers, should be going solar?

FULTON: If you’re in D.C. proper, absolutely. The D.C. government has passed some terrific legislation which really supports solar for customers. The paybacks are very, very quick, and if you have any interest whatsoever, I highly encourage you to go check out your local solar installer. Maryland and Virginia are both also great markets for it. Not quite as great as D.C., because incentives aren’t quite as good. Maryland would be second tier, but still a great place to go solar. In Virginia, we are so close to getting some policy support for solar. Maybe not this year, maybe next year, in which case I think the economics would really jump up.

ABERMAN: You mentioned the involvement of government. Give me an example of something they’re doing right now to help you help consumers.

FULTON: Well, I definitely want to put a plug in for what’s happening here in D.C., the Solar For All program. We’ve been doing a pilot with Pepco, and a great installer called Good Alternatives, which provides solar for low-income households which might not otherwise be able to get that. We’ve managed to lower the cost, on average, for installs by about $500. Which is a really big deal for a lot of these customers. Pepco’s reviewed the device, and suggested some changes they’d like to see, before we can take it larger. Good Alternatives has been a fantastic reviewer, and it’s just been a perfect experience all around.

ABERMAN: Meanwhile again, a great opportunity to learn about another entrepreneur here in town making things happen. Whit Fulton, thanks for joining us.

FULTON: Thanks, Jonathan.

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