As the urgency of the climate crisis becomes increasingly clear, technology firms are pushing harder toward solutions designed to boost electrification and the use of renewable energy. Solar panels have become more common, for example, as have smart thermostats and a focus on energy-saving services, in both homes and offices. But there are generations of aging infrastructure and regulations standing in the way.
That has not stopped companies building smart home products from trying to nudge customers to more efficient habits through connected devices, however. Last month, Google announced a way to use renewable energy to power a home through Nest, and Tesla is continuing to build electric vehicles that people want to drive. I’ve also talked to three or four smart home players in the last few months about energy-saving routines they could create for consumers. But the most interesting startup out there right now that’s trying to smarten the energy grid is San Francisco-based Span.
The startup was founded in 2018. Its CEO, Arch Rao, appeared on the podcast back in January. And this week, it announced new software features and two new products designed to help consumers make their homes’ energy systems smarter.
Span makes a breaker box that analyzes and manages the flow of electricity around the home based on where it’s needed. I’m excited by the decision to make consumer hardware for the entire home because it allows individual consumers to upgrade an integral part of the electrical grid without the help of a utility, all of which are notoriously slow-moving. And while that may not sound like much, it’s actually pretty revolutionary.
In most homes, each electrical load — such as a series of lights and outlets or a large appliance — gets one or two dedicated circuits with a set amperage. If the amperage is 20 amps per circuit and the device plugged into that outlet only needs 10 amps, there’s slack in the system. Building codes are designed around this.
But if someone wants to install a device that unlike an outlet or appliance doesn’t run all the time, such an electric car charger, they would need a specific number of circuits and amps to be allocated for that device. Span’s panel lets its customers allocate extra amps to devices that need them, which means that as people electrify their homes, they won’t have to upgrade their existing incoming electricity (which does require a call to the utility company).
I have already run into this problem in my house after installing an induction range and a heat pump in an effort to eliminate fossil fuel use. Add in the electric car charger for my car and I’m pretty much out of circuits for anything new. And my home’s electrical system was actually upgraded to 200 amps a few years back.
The Span panel is not for mainstream users, though. It costs $3,500, and the company has only recently adjusted its sales efforts to be able to return calls from people eager to buy it. According to Rao, the sales process is highly personalized, both because a customer has to use an electrician that’s certified to install the Span panel and because Span wants a lot of details about the home and the electricity provider. His hope is to sell tens of thousands, not millions, of units in the coming year.
In the meantime, despite its early stage, Span is launching two software features for existing panel customers and two new hardware products as it seeks to meet the demand for a more modern grid.
The first hardware product is Span Drive, a physical car-charging box for electric vehicles that will work with the Span breaker box to optimize charging times. The idea is that electric vehicles can’t charge at their full capacity on home electrical networks because they can’t pull enough amperage from the circuits without overwhelming them. Span Drive ensures that a car can charge quickly and pull as much as it needs by making sure the car charges only when the full amperage is available, which is especially useful when only a quick charge is needed. Span Drive will cost $500 and requires a Span panel. It will be available in April 2022.
The second product is a second Span panel with an integrated meter box. Rao told me that 40% of homes, typically older ones, in the U.S. have these integrated boxes, which expands the number of potential customers for Span’s technology.
On the software side, Span will now let users sign up for a demand response program with participating utilities that lets those users decide how to reduce their home’s electrical load. Most demand response programs today are tied to HVAC systems in residential homes, which can leave people surprised when their air conditioning stops cooling as much as anticipated during the hottest part of the day.
Span customers will be able to select appliances and lights to participate in demand response, although given how much electricity HVAC systems use, focusing on them is probably the most efficient way to reduce demand quickly. The other software feature will track the health of a home’s wiring as well as any appliances pulling electricity from the grid. Based on fluctuations in demand over time or analysis of a swath of users, Span plans to tell customers if their HVAC compressor is working too hard or their fridge is becoming less efficient over time.
Both of these features are free, although Rao said it’s possible Span will charge for other software features over time.
Obviously this is an expensive upgrade for homeowners, albeit a cheaper option than bringing a new electrical line to the home. And it won’t solve the larger problems facing our aged electrical infrastructure. But it’s a start, and a good model for how to think about using electricity more wisely. So I’m hopeful that Span’s customer service problems associated with its backlogged sales are behind it and that more homes will get something like this installed.