SEPA researcher powers up Utility Solar Database upgrade | SEPA Skip to content

SEPA researcher powers up Utility Solar Database upgrade

By K Kaufmann

Some people like words and creative writing. Others, like Daisy Chung, like “to climb spreadsheets.”

“I like things neat and accessible, that are correct and make sense,” said Chung, a research analyst at the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), who has spent the past 14 months supporting and updating the educational nonprofit’s Utility Solar Database.

The database — or USD, for short — is a unique, one-stop clearinghouse on utility-owned and -initiated solar projects and programs across the country. But while the original version suffered from data overload — “we had a lot of useful data but no way of translating that usefulness to our members and subscribers,” Chung said — the reboot launching April 24 is a data geek’s nirvana.

New USD Screenshot
Screen shot with data on total U.S. solar capacity from SEPA’s Utility Solar Database.

With multiple filters and pull-down menus, even solar newbies can drill down into the database to check the status of a specific utility-scale project, find out about solar incentives in Mississippi or look at the latest request for proposals from their local power company. A few clicks can also turn up other goodies such as SEPA’s own exclusive research, including the raw data from its annual utility solar survey, and a library of reports, ranging from state and utility integrated resource plans to analyses of new business models.

Coming April 24, the USD upgrade here.

Chung notes that SEPA staff is constantly gathering information on new and existing utility solar programs and policies and updating the database. One example, she said, are the community solar projects that have been proliferating across the country.

“A lot of projects are not publicly known or haven’t gone through the media,” she said. “So unless you have a relationship with those utilities or other entities that started those programs, you wouldn’t have known they were there. Here, it’s all in one place.”

Keeping the human touch was also an important part of the upgrade, Chung said, so all search result pages come with a contact box allowing users to send questions directly to SEPA staff.

Chung’s obvious passion for the project — and spreadsheet climbing — are rooted in her interest in combining perspectives, she said, such as patterns of data and human needs.

Daisy Head Shot 2

SEPA research analyst Daisy Chung


Born in Hong Kong, she came to the United States with her family in 1991, eventually settling in Texas. She has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Texas in Austin and a master’s in international public affairs, with a focus on energy analysis and policy from the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

After stints with Samsung and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, she came to SEPA in early 2014, drawn at least in part by the opportunity to work on the USD upgrade.

“When I was looking at the job description I was very happy that it encompassed something I totally stand behind — solar energy — as well as a data-specific role that I can twirl my fingers around, do some of the teasing out, some of the reorganizing.”

The need for an upgrade became apparent soon after SEPA launched the USD in 2013, Chung said.

“The platform we thought we needed basically couldn’t handle all the stuff we were putting into the database. There was just so much,” she recalled.

The update itself Chung divided into separate phases. Once a core team of developers and SEPA staff had been assembled — about a year ago — the brainstorming started both inside and outside the organization, she said.

“It was three months of thinking very, very hard — finding out what the users actually want and identifying key parts of what needed to be included in the database and what needed to be improved,” she said.

Development then proceeded toward “a general framework of how the USD is going to function,” she said. “We didn’t even talk about how it would look. We started from 30 feet in the air and then got down to 10 feet,” she said.

Website design was a case of form following function — “how to make something look like how it would work,” she said.

Chung describes the final stages of launching the upgrade as “walking along the surface and making sure every single link works the way it should, making sure every single path goes where it should.”

But what she finds most satisfying and fun is seeing how the upgrade has incorporated the comments and suggestions different individuals made during the original brainstorming sessions.

“I can look at very small snippets of the database and attribute them to people’s ideas and say, ‘You know what? Everyone really helped build this,’” she said.

Which does not mean Chung isn’t already thinking ahead to the next upgrade and what she calls the “parking lot” list of features left out of the current reboot.

“The cool thing about having a database is that it’s never perfect; there’s always more information you can add and you can always present things more interestingly,” she said. “We have a running parking lot list of items everyone would like to see in the database, and it’s very much alive.”

The Utility Solar Database is available free to SEPA members and by subscription to nonmembers. A webinar on the USD upgrade is planned for later this year.

For more information, contact Chung at [email protected].