There has been lots of news recently about hacking of computers in automobiles. The first major breach was reported in Chrysler’s Jeep Cherokee. It was only a matter of time before researchers and hackers set their sites on the venerable Tesla Model S. Sure enough, this week we heard news that Tesla, maker of the Tesla Powerwall Home Battery, was hacked. Sure, the researchers needed physical access under the dash in the interior of the car, but it exposed a vulnerability nonetheless.
Now for the good news… it’s fixed! The Tesla Model S has a wireless connection built right into it, and the manufacturer can push firmware updates to the vehicle remotely. As the story of the hack came out, the biggest scoop was the ability to combat a problem through the airwaves, without requiring an expensive recall and time-consuming trip to a dealership.
Incidentally, the solar energy industry is heading in this direction. While Internet monitoring and even control of solar energy systems has been around for a while, things changed drastically around 5 or 6 years ago when Enphase launched it’s line of microinverters, which convert the DC energy from solar panels to AC energy that us usable in our homes and businesses. Through an Internet gateway device called the Enphase Envoy, microinverters send performance data to Enphase’s servers where they host a customer portal where owners can review system data. One of the best features, however, is the ability to reset, update, and fix microinverter issues without rolling a truck to the installation site.
There are many issues that I have seen Enphase resolve remotely. For example, a false ground fault trip of an inverter is easy to fix with a remote reset. Some of the earlier generations of microinverter had communication issues that were improved with remote firmware updates. Entire systems of older inverters have been upgraded to the latest firmware for stability and algorithm updates. Systems down to the solar module level are constantly and automatically monitored for performance deficiencies and failures, and alerts are created when an issue arises. Human technicians employed by the manufacturer can “dial in” to an individual inverter and get granular insight into the performance data.
While nowhere near as technologically advanced as the Tesla Model S, solar inverter technology is on the forefront of the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution. Now that costs have come down so drastically, there is little reason to exclude Internet control and monitoring of solar energy electronics, and I expect it to become ubiquitous and standard. Manufacturers that fail to provide robust remote access to hardware devices will lose market share. Consumers are demanding this technology be embedded, and new companies that build solutions from the ground up (like Tesla) are in the best position to take a competitive advantage and run with it.
Now there are concerns, for sure. It is only a matter of time before an inverter manufacturer becomes the target of hackers that want their 15 minutes of fame. Fortunately, we are probably not dealing with life safety issues, but I guess it’s possible. What if hackers could adjust system parameters to change voltage or frequency, frying appliances, and potentially starting fires. It seems like a very, very low probability, but in theory they could at least knock out your energy production for a while. Because systems can be positively disconnected from your home’s electrical system with a physical switch, there are easy ways to minimize or thwart an attack. The industry needs to be wary of these issues and address the real concern of consumers.
For now, the positives far outweigh the negatives for the Internet connectivity of these devices. In a recent development, Enphase remotely upgraded it’s microinverters installed in Hawaii to meet new standards for a changing electricity grid. The upgrade made the microinverters more fault-tolerant to issues on the utility grid, which in turn made the grid more stable. It was a collaborative effort with grid operators, and shows how remote upgrade capability can save millions of dollars and reduce or eliminate owner inconvenience.
Buyers of solar energy systems should take into consideration this phenomenal functionality when considering hardware options. While we don’t know what the future holds for IoT, the best way to hedge against changes is to buy products that are adaptable and connected. After all, your solar energy purchase and investment will last well over 25 years, and being able to adapt over that time frame will maximize your ability to take advantage of new opportunities and maintain your system in a cost effective manner.