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The Orange Button Initiative: How standardized data can cut solar soft costs

Question: What is the Orange Button program?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative launched the Orange ButtonSM program in April 2016. The goal of the program is to reduce the soft costs of solar installation by streamlining the collection, management, exchange, and monetizing of datasets – and increasing cybersecurity — across the solar value chain. To achieve this goal, the program is developing an industry-driven, standardized taxonomy – that is, classification system – for this data, which will, in turn, encourage the further growth of solar.

The need for Orange Button is itself industry-driven. Today, 63 percent of residential solar installation costs are soft costs, which are the costs outside of hardware. Soft costs range from  permit fees and installation labor to costs related to customer acquisition and data transactions.

According to the Department of Energy, soft costs can vary significantly as a result of a fragmented energy marketplace.  In the U.S., there are 18,000 jurisdictions and 3,000 utilities, and many have different rules and regulations for how to go solar – and different ways of organizing and formatting data. In simplest terms, the Orange Button program is developing a common language for exchanging solar data, thus reducing inefficiencies and eliminating costs.


Question: How are solar data transactions inefficient? Can you give an example?

Take, for instance, an investor that finances many distributed and utility-scale solar installations. Each month, this entity receives data about the performance of each of these installations. Currently, the data could come in many formats; for example, some asset operators may submit their zip codes within the standard five-digit format, while others will include the more complete ZIP+4 format.

Turning that data into something useful can take a significant amount of time and resources. The investor must employ individuals who work full time receiving data about projects in the investor’s portfolio and converting this information into the consistent, possibly customized format the investor uses to manage its solar assets.

The solar data taxonomy being developed by the Orange Button program is simply a consistent way of defining and organizing solar data that will make data exchanges and transactions between solar industry participants easier, faster and more secure.

The final Orange Button taxonomy will have hundreds, maybe thousands of terms and clear definitions so that everyone in the solar industry can standardize data to cut costs and make data sharing easier.


Question: Are there other areas in the solar industry where Orange Button could be used to reduce inefficiencies and cut costs?

Absolutely; in fact, once widely adopted, Orange Button will have many applications. In addition to the example above, one could envision a scenario where an investment company is approached by multiple developers to finance a large-scale solar installation. Currently each developer submits its proposals using different and varying data types. The investment company can either require the data to be submitted in a standardized format – which would increase costs for the developer — or spend money and time translating all the different data into the standardized language needed to compare and evaluate the proposals. Either way, these expenses will be added to whatever final investments the firm decides to make. A standardized taxonomy would help the investment firm to more quickly and cost-effectively evaluate the proposals and make decisions about where to invest its funds.

On the flip side, the asset operators with multiple solar farms will be able to report performance data to owners and investors without having to customize it for each owner’s needs, again reducing costs.

For solar software vendors, incorporating Orange Button data classifications into their financial and compliance management products will enable the exchange of data between backend systems, a process that now requires manual manipulation to complete.


Question: Who is involved in the Orange Button program?

The Department of Energy awarded the project to four organizations, including SEPA (continuing the work that started under SGIP, prior to the two groups’ merger), the SunSpec Alliance, kWh Analytics and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). While collaborating on the project, each organization has a different area of focus and responsibility  in the development of the Orange Button data standards and accompanying tool sets to aid industry adoption.

The SEPA team spent the first year of the program recruiting solar industry participants and stakeholders representing all areas of the solar value chain, including site and project development, finance, installation, operations and management, and grid integration.

In Phase 1 of the program, these solar stakeholders were organized into Requirements Working Groups led by the partners to gather broad input on requirements for the data standards and to promote industry awareness and adoption. Together, the working groups developed a scoping study and market requirements that defines what data should be included in the standards.

The end result of the Phase 1 activities was to produce industry requirements that could be developed into a solar data taxonomy.

Now in Phase 2 of the Orange Button program, the SunSpec Alliance is using the requirements to design and implement the complete set of data standards and classifications, application programming interfaces (APIs) and a conformance test suite that will make the solar data taxonomy a reality.

For Phase 3, kWh Analytics will develop cloud-based data translation tools that can translate legacy solar data into Orange Button compliant formats to make adoption easier across the sector.

Finally, NREL will develop a data catalog and online presence, to be called the Solar Data Exchange Platform. This website will provide a comprehensive solar data catalog, with easy access to common data standards, a means to combine data, and search functionality.

All of these tools will be open and available for public access.


Question: What’s next for Orange Button, and how can someone get involved?

This year, the Orange Button partners will complete the development of the data taxonomy itself, the tools to support it, and demonstrate the system to educate the industry on its benefits. With these benchmarks completed, the Orange Button teams will push for early industry acceptance and adoption.

We hope to see software vendors integrate Orange Button standards into their products, where it makes sense. Once financial institutions or utilities incorporate Orange Button into their software, we could see accelerated adoption across the industry.

For those looking to learn more and register to participate in SEPA’s Orange Button Working Group, please visit  SEPA’s upcoming Grid Evolution Summit: A National Town Meeting will include a half-day Orange Button Demonstration and Implementation Workshop, 1-5 p.m., July 25.