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Solar data standards: The final step in a 40-year journey

Michael Eckhart likes to say he’s “been involved in the solar industry since it didn’t exist.”

With a degree in electrical engineering and a stint the U.S. Navy, Eckhart led the first national assessment of solar technology for President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Since then, he has played an instrumental role in the growth of the U.S. solar market through the creation of the Solar Bank Initiative, a pioneer in international financing; the Shell-Eskom Solar Energy Company, a residential system installer in South Africa; and the American Council on Renewable Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

In his current role as Managing Director and Head of Global Head of Environmental Finance at Citigroup, Eckhart focused on making solar a leading electricity source, one that can support hundreds of billions of dollars in transactions.

“That doesn’t happen without a lot of data, and very good data,” he said.

Which is why, In 2015, Eckhart and Citigroup signed a letter of support for a proposal to develop best practices and standards for solar data exchange. The U.S. Department of Energy matched the proposal — from the California-based SunSpec Alliance — with similar proposals from three other organizations—the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and kWh Analytics. The result was the Orange Button Initiative, launched in 2016, with the goal of cutting so-called soft costs in the solar industry by creating industry-wide standards for data exchange.

While some solar professionals are only beginning to learn about standardized data, many of Eckhart’s colleagues in banking and investments have been working with such standards for years. The principle value, whether for a solar asset or a publicly traded company, is the same. Standards reduce the time and expense of supplying investors with operating reports and other essential data. They also make it possible for investors to perform risk analysis and package a wide variety of revenue-generating assets, such as solar projects and home mortgages, for the financial securities markets.

The Orange Button Initiative released its first set of standards in April 2018, and work on enhancing and expanding the use of the standards continues. The initial release was modeled on XBRL, a widely used reporting standard for public disclosures to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — a big plus for the finance community, Eckhart said.

“At scale, we’re working with financiers who don’t know about solar and don’t care,” he said. “They know about the deal. It’s a numbers game. Whether it’s data from kWh Analytics or Orange Button data, these things have to exist so we can go to scale. Wall Street is not going to turn on until we generate the data.”

Matthew Hirsch runs Hirsch Media, a California-based content marketing agency for the solar industry. Learn more at hirschmedia.com.

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