Span’s plan to get its smart electrical panels into more homes

The startup is expanding its product line to help small homes and apartments add heat pumps, induction stoves and EVs — and help utilities manage them.
By Jeff St. John

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A smart electrical panel made by San Francisco-based startup Span installed in a basement

Electrical panels — the gray boxes of circuit breakers that sit in basements or on the exterior of a house — can be a major barrier to electrifying homes and apartments.

Millions of homes have undersized electrical panels that may be unable to handle the extra power demand that comes with switching from fossil gas to electric heating and appliances, or adding an EV charger to the garage. It’s possible to upgrade these panels, but it can be expensive and at times slow-going, given that utilities often need to be involved.

Arch Rao, CEO of San Francisco–based startup Span, thinks his company’s digitally controllable smart-panel technology could unlock electrification for those homes. But to play that role, the products will have to come in more shapes and sizes — and at lower price points — than Span’s $3,500 32-circuit panel, which is primarily aimed at homes with solar panels on their roofs and backup batteries in their garages.

That’s why Span is now expanding its smart-panel line, Rao told Canary Media in an interview. The goal is to go from where we are today to a place where we’re helping more homeowners, states and utilities meet their electrification goals.”

Span’s new product line, set for commercial release later this year, includes 24-circuit and 16-circuit models suitable for smaller homes, multifamily buildings and small commercial properties, he said. It also includes a combination panel/electric-meter unit that could serve as a tool for utilities, which is being tested by as-yet-unnamed U.S. utilities via a partnership with global metering technology company Landis+Gyr. Span declined to share pricing information at this time.

Electrification is going to be relevant across existing homes upgrading to get an EV charger or heat pump,” Rao said, and utilities are trying to build infrastructure to support widespread electrification” without incurring expensive grid upgrades that can be triggered by homeowners seeking to electrify their homes — which can drive up costs for all customers.

Span's line of new smart electrical panels and associated equipment
Span's new product line (Span)

In California, a state with aggressive building-electrification goals, utilities are already starting to fall behind in upgrading their grids to meet increasing loads, Rao pointed out. If a utility determines that an electrification project requires expanding the capacity of the power lines feeding a home, the resulting upgrade project can take years and add tens of thousands of dollars in costs.

And as state programs and federal subsidies from the Inflation Reduction Act bring tens of billions of dollars in tax credits and incentives for home-electrification projects, including solar panels, batteries, electric vehicles and heat pumps, Rao said the need for solutions to panel bottlenecks will become even more urgent. Electrical-panel upgrades themselves are eligible for government incentives, too.

Smart panels can help avoid problems by cutting utilities out of the equation. The technology automatically adjusts power flows through individual household circuits to get more use out of a home’s existing electricity capacity.

Span has previously shared data from its smart-panel-equipped customers with pro-electrification nonprofit Rewiring America to show how its tech can ensure that homes never exceed maximum limits on panel or grid capacity. Now it’s working with utilities to demonstrate that its PowerUp software can reliably and consistently maintain homes’ power draws within safe limits, including with the utilities testing its panel-meter combo product.

Span’s PowerUp software got a thumbs-up from the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit group that tests technologies for utilities. It evaluated the platform last year and found that PowerUp successfully manages load relative to a target set-point in both online and offline” conditions. That latter point is an important consideration for utilities that want to be sure the technology they rely on to avoid overloading the grid won’t stop working when a home’s Wi-Fi connectivity drops out, Rao noted.

Smaller panels aren’t the only new devices on the menu. Span also plans to introduce a 48-circuit panel geared toward new-home construction — a product that is expected to play a role in its recently announced partnership with PulteGroup, the third-largest homebuilder in the U.S., which selected Span as its preferred energy management provider for net-zero home construction.

There are tools other than smart panels that can keep a home’s appetite for electricity within the limits of its existing capacity. Some utilities have approved devices such as the SimpleSwitch, NeoCharge, Dryer Buddy and Splitvolt that can prevent two loads served by the same circuit from simultaneously drawing power.

More sophisticated subpanel devices from companies such as Canadian company Koben’s Genius smart panel and Charlottesville, Virginia–based Lumin can add wireless communications and smartphone controls to household circuits without a complete electrical panel replacement.

Mainstream electrical-panel manufacturers are also getting into the smart-panel game. Schneider Electric’s Square D Energy Center has digital controls embedded into the panel itself, and Eaton has embedded digital controls inside the circuit breakers within the panel. Other companies such as ConnectDER are embedding digital controls inside meter-collar” devices that can be attached to utility electrical meters.

All of these technologies have a role to play in helping customers, contractors and utilities find a way to electrify homes, Rao said. But he argued that there are advantages to building the smarts into the electrical panel itself, rather than relying on Wi-Fi-controlled devices.

Because our solution is built into the panel itself, we always have a backstop,” he said. We have this guarantee that we’re able to avoid an inadvertent unsafe operation mode by virtue of how the product is designed.” 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.