SolarCasters, a One-Man Startup, Seeks Funding for Solar Power Forecasts
Steve Ihnen knows to the minute when the clouds will arrive. From the Redmond, WA, office of his company, SolarCasters, he keeps an eye on weather conditions around the world with satellite data. Then, using complex mathematical modeling software, he collates cloud-cover, humidity, and other factors to calculate how much sunlight will reach the ground in a given spot in the next day, hour, or even minute.
SolarCasters is a “weatherman for the solar power industry,” among other roles, says Ihnen, the chief technology officer and only full-time employee of SolarCasters. Besides forecasting when the sun will come out, the company provides information and consulting to solar power companies about where best to build their plants, what kind of solar panels they should use, and how much electricity they can expect to produce. Based on criteria like how much the sun shines in a given area and what the relevant weather is like there, Ihnen can recommend the best options in placement and design to his clients.
Knowing how much solar energy is available minute-to-minute is vitally important because unlike nuclear, coal, or other types of power generators, solar power cannot be as easily controlled and managed. “The supply of electricity must precisely meet demand at every instant,” Ihnen said. Generally, large-scale power suppliers, whether public or private utilities or independent system operators like the California ISO (a power grid operator), share and move power about, buying and selling electricity as needed to keep supply and demand levels equalized. Solar power plants thus need to know in advance how much power they will generate in order to replace or buy power from another power plant as necessary. Ideally, Ihnen said, power systems together “operate almost as if they were one organism.”
Although not heavily used in America yet, solar power is a rapidly growing industry in places like Europe and Australia. SolarCaster’s clients are located all over the world, but non-disclosure agreements prevent Ihnen from revealing who his clients are, or even how many he has, since he began taking on clients last fall.
Ihnen founded the company in January 2008 after spending two years developing his prediction software. He is able to run SolarCasters without other employees because of technological advances, he says. The core of SolarCasters is its proprietary prediction software, but “it’s a practical thing to do only because of the Internet,” Ihnen says. Otherwise, it would take a lot of people to put together satellite data and other information in ways usable by the program. Quickly compiling images and information from databases required much more manpower before advanced search software became available. Ihnen created his prediction program after previously developing software to model groundwater contamination in a previous, now-defunct company called Intellego.
Although he is looking for angel investors, Ihnen jokes that his company is currently “funded by loose change found in my sofa.” The Puget Sound area only has one small solar plant near Ellensburg, WA, which may explain the lack of investor interest. Ihnen says he finds the lack of interest in alternate energy sources among local investors disappointing—and he’s certainly not alone in this sentiment. If he cannot secure investment here, he said he may move the company elsewhere.
Americans are currently more invested in wind than solar power, Ihnen says. In fact, there is a company in Seattle, 3Tier, which predicts wind conditions the way SolarCasters does sun. (3Tier also does solar and hydro predictions, as Xconomy wrote about here and here.) Rather than viewing this as competition, Ihnen foresees a time when the two energy sources will work in tandem, with solar panels providing energy during the day, and wind farms picking up the slack at night. SolarCasters is already partnering with a wind prediction company, with an official announcement soon to come.
Now, after 30 straight days without rain (according to the official tally), perhaps Seattle investors will begin to rethink their stance on investing in solar power and related firms. But wherever the solar plants are, there would seem to be a need for a company like SolarCasters. “Solar companies need to know what energy is available in advance, and that’s what we do,” Ihnen says.