The Apple of Solar Energy? Enphase Applies Silicon Valley Smarts to Solar’s Neglected Plumbing

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the vehicle’s batteries and how much is coming from the gasoline engine. While the display is slick and helps to sell the car, I pointed out, very few Prius owners actually use the data to drive more efficiently.

Nahi admits that the Enlighten data might be overkill. “Do you need to watch the pretty pictures all day long? No, but it’s kind of fun,” he says But installers like the Enlighten technology, he says. It helps sell Enphase’s microinverter systems, yes, but it also helps them stay in touch with customers after installation.

In fact, unprompted by me, Kortlang also brought up the Prius comparison, in a way that better underscores the data’s role. “Imagine you’re driving along and you notice that the mileage has gone down from 40 miles per gallon to 37,” he says. “You might think, ‘Oh, that’s weird,’ but a mechanic remotely monitoring your Prius could say, ‘Hey, piston number 7 is down and we’re sending someone out to fix it’—which is what Enphase does. With a central inverter, there’s no way you could ever know that there’s a satellite dish shading part of your system and reducing your output, whereas with Enphase, they monitor that.” So the second cleantech lesson from Enphase is about customers, or, more broadly, communication: data from smart inverters, smart meters, and other IT-enhanced components can foster conversations that ultimately lead to more energy savings.

Because Enphase’s microinverters are mostly just circuit boards and are produced at higher volumes than central inverters, their cost will come down over time, to the point that they may eventually be cheaper, Nahi says. “We have significant semiconductor content, so we can R&D our way to lower costs,” he says. “Scale will benefit us far more than any central inverter manufacturer. I would be surprised if we weren’t the number one seller of inverters within a few years.”

Enphase recently opened European sales offices in Paris and Milan. But its biggest challenge is meeting demand right here in North America, Nahi says. “Most [installers] will tell you that it’s easier, faster, better—the question was whether they could trust it. I think we’ve got enough data now to support it. And we are tripling our production capacity this year to keep up with demand.”

Nahi says he likes to think of Enphase as the Apple of solar energy. The comparison isn’t fatuous: if you had to look for another example of a Silicon Valley company that came out of nowhere, disrupted a decades-old industry, and grabbed 20 percent market share over the course of just three years, the obvious one would be Apple’s entry into the smartphone and tablet market.

But Nahi also has a different point in mind. “What we have is a microinverter system,” he says. “If your MacBook was running Windows, it wouldn’t be as exciting, and if Apple were just selling OS X, it would not be as exciting. What makes [Apple products] brilliant is that they’re a system of hardware and software that works together. It’s beautiful, it’s simple, and it just works. For us, it’s exactly the same.”

Here’s a video produced by Enphase showing the Enlighten user interface. In this example, the output of a 24-panel solar array is tracked over the course of seven days. The effect of shadows and clouds passing over the array is clearly visible.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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