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Span targets broader market for its smartphone-enabled home electrical panel

CEO Arch Rao says the device’s shrinking size and price can help put battery, EV and appliance controls into more homes and apartments — and open up more utility partnerships.
By Jeff St. John

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Startup Span wants to position its smart electrical panels as the control hub of choice for homes equipped with solar panels, behind-the-meter batteries, electric vehicles and all-electric heaters and appliances.

It also wants to grow past its early-adopter phase to address a broader swath of single and multifamily homes — and give utilities a lower-price connection point to manage the increasingly flexible array of devices set up behind their customers’ meters.

That’s the premise behind Span’s smaller, lighter and cheaper smart panel, which was released this week. Over the past nine months, the Silicon Valley startup led by Arch Rao, formerly head of Tesla’s energy storage business, has been working with solar and battery installers to put its first-generation smart panels into homes.

We’ve learned a lot about the use cases for our product and the challenges for installers,” Rao said in an interview. “[We] continued to engineer our costs so that the Span panel can become more affordable.”

The new panel fits those specs. At half the weight and about two-thirds the size of the first model, it’s suitable for indoor installation, making it a good fit for apartments and condos as well as single-family homes, he said.

And the most important thing is that we’re now a lot less expensive than we were a year and a half ago,” he said, with a new retail price of $3,500, compared to $5,000 for its first version.

That’s still quite a bit more expensive than the ubiquitous gray-box electrical panels that adorn every home with a standard grid connection. Low price and high reliability, not technical innovation, have been the main focus in this market, which is dominated by electric equipment giants such as Schneider Electric and Eaton.

From solar and batteries to EVs and electrification

Span has raised about $44 million to popularize a digitally networked, remote-controllable version of this decades-old technology. Now its product is starting to gain traction with home solar and battery installers. A single Span panel can replace several pieces of equipment required for many of these installations, including automated transfer switches, isolation transformers and quite often the heavier-duty model of electrical panel that is needed to handle the increased power flows involved.

And unlike standard analog panels, Span’s panel can monitor and measure individual household circuits, offering homeowners circuit-by-circuit control via smartphone app or online interface.

For those homeowners using batteries for backup power, this offers the ability to pick and choose which loads remain energized during outages. The other options today are hard-wiring critical loads in advance or trusting that a single battery can keep an entire home powered for more than a few hours.

This digital interface can also provide much more visibility into the relationship between self-generated and self-stored power and household loads that are increasingly going electric. Achieving state and federal decarbonization goals will require more and more homes to support EV charging and replace natural-gas-fired furnaces and stoves with electric models.

Span’s new panel can support up to 90 amps in each circuit, enough to power heavy draws like these without upgrades, Rao said. It can also balance power draws across multiple circuits, lessening the pressure on the power grid as well as on what’s being provided by solar panels and batteries.

Smart electrical panels as a utility tool

That kind of functionality is appealing to utilities. In January, Span joined forces with Silicon Valley Clean Energy to streamline solar and storage installations, facilitate household electrification by reducing the need for expensive service upgrades, and serve as the home’s energy management hub,” as SVCE wrote in its press release announcing the partnership. SVCE is one of the many California community choice aggregators that are grappling with wildfire-prevention grid shutoffs in the state.

SVCE is offering rebates on the order of a couple of thousand dollars” on Span’s panels, Rao said. Similarly, a new pilot program with Green Mountain Power, the Vermont utility that’s installed thousands of Tesla Powerwall and other behind-the-meter batteries at customers’ homes, is offering Span’s new panels at no cost for up to 100 test customers.

Green Mountain Power has grown this customer-sited battery fleet through a program that allows it to rate-base battery costs and recoup them from customers via monthly fees. Customers get backup power and solar-shifting value, and GMP gets permission to tap them at other times to capture grid and capacity values.

Mary Powell, Green Mountain Power’s former CEO and now a Span board member, said in an interview this week that offering customers batteries for backup power was wonderful, but it didn’t have that level of sophistication.” During outages, she said, users were just randomly shutting stuff off to try to extend that battery life.”

The utility has also promoted grid-interactive smart thermostats, water heaters and EV chargers as part of a broader push to enhance the role that customers can play in balancing the grid. That will be particularly helpful in a state set to be powered entirely by renewable energy by 2030. A device such as Span’s panel could be an important tool in that effort, Powell noted.

The panel can in essence replace the meter and be the intersection with the utility to not only give you that revenue-grade meter reading [but] also facilitate that energy-sharing economy,” she said.

Competition at the intersection of the electric-powered home and the grid edge

Rao said Span envisions a role in providing fleet monitoring and fleet controls, not only for the panels but [also] for connected loads.” The startup is also working on more ways to tap the data coming from its panels, such as sensing when appliances like air conditioners and refrigerators may be nearing failure by analyzing the circuits powering them.

Span isn’t the only company targeting this kind of home energy control and visibility. Schneider Electric, which holds significant global market share in the residential and commercial electrical equipment space, launched its Square D Energy Center product this year, boasting many of the same features Span’s panel offers, as well as energy disaggregation technology from partner Sense. Earlier this month, Schneider announced its first installations with homebuilder KB Home in a 128-unit residential development in California.

Eaton, another global electrical equipment giant, has integrated its digitally enabled circuit breakers into commercially available products such as sonnen’s ecoLinx home automation platform. Solar and battery installers including Tesla, Sunrun, sonnen, Generac and Enphase have been rushing to add more energy visibility and control to their systems, and startups such as Lumin and ConnectDER make add-on hardware to offer similar capabilities.

Rao said he believes Span’s current lead in the market will give it a leg up on these competitors. The startup’s product integrates with Tesla and LG Chem batteries, which represent about four-fifths of all U.S. residential battery sales, giving it room to scale along with the larger market, he said.

What’s it going to take for all of us to move toward electrified homes?” he said. We’re providing a new piece of technology that reimagines what the edge of grid looks like.”

(Article image courtesy of Span)

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.