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The Orange Button ‘gridvolution’: A critical tool for taking the energy transition digital

Two months ago at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, decarbonization captured most of the headlines—and for good reason. California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that state, local and business leadership is driving the United States toward its 2025 goals for the United Nations’ Paris climate accord, despite President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement. The campaign against climate change is gaining momentum.

Meanwhile, at an affiliated event called Gridvolution, several sessions focused on distributed energy resources, including the Orange Button Initiative, a collaborative effort to drive down project soft costs by establishing a standard format for reporting and collecting project data. The U.S. Department of Energy launched the initiative in 2016 with the goal of creating an industry-wide standard similar to the Green Button standard for streamlining consumers’ access to their energy use data.

Led by SunSpec Alliance, the creators of the Gridvolution forum and a principal Orange Button sponsor, the event had no grand proclamations; instead initiative stakeholders rolled out a powerful new set of software tools for solar financiers, project developers and asset managers. The message here: an electric grid evolution, a “gridvolution,” is gathering speed, as well.

Talking Orange Button at the Gridvolution, (from left) Jon Previtali, Wells Fargo; Michelle Savage, XBRL US; Charlie Isaacs, Salesforce; David Sykes, Chapman and Cutler LLP; and Tom Tansy, SunSpec Alliance. (Photo by Matthew Wiseman)

Key takeaways from the event: Moving beyond initial development of the standard, software developers are now major players in the multiplication and sophistication of its potential applications. And, from an initial group of four sponsors, Orange Button has expanded to include 350 companies and more than 1,000 individuals as active participants.

Still, over the past two years, much of the work on Orange Button has taken place behind the scenes. Initially, sponsors partnered with financiers such as Wells Fargo and asset managers such as sPower to demonstrate market demand for the standard, also reaching out to software companies large and small to help identify and shape cost-saving solutions. More recently, the project has entered a new phase, as noted, with software developers delivering the lines of code and functional tools to significantly cut costs on data collection and management for the people who build and invest in solar projects.

The Orange Button data standard itself is an open-source system for codifying solar project data and automating data exchange during project assessments, permitting, financing, interconnection, and other stages of the project lifecycle. Reflecting the complexity and granularity of the information involved, the initial release of the standard — Orange Button 1.0 — contains about 4,200 data fields.

Access Orange Button 1.0 at the SunSpec Alliance website.

Soon after releasing version 1.0, members of the Orange Button workgroup set their sights on adding project documents to the standard’s open-source, digital library, starting with manufacturer data sheets. Also known as spec sheets or cut sheets, a data sheet reports a product’s key specifications, including dimensions, electrical characteristics, and third-party certifications. Adding data sheets to Orange Button enabled inverter manufacturers to report compliance with California’s newly revised interconnection standard, Rule 21, highlighting one of many use cases.

Gridvolution panel on Orange Button code, (from left) Jan Rippingale, Blue Banyan Solutions; Jonathan Xia, kWh Analytics; and Jessie Deot and Tom Tansy, both of SunSpec Alliance. (Photo by Matthew Wiseman)

More recently, kWh Analytics introduced Orange Button Translate, software that takes proprietary project data and converts it to the Orange Button standard, moving the market one step closer to deploying data interoperability at scale.

“The reason Orange Button has developed faster than many of us had anticipated is the high rate of industry participation,” said Jan Rippingale, CEO at Blue Banyan Solutions, which provides business software for solar firms. “Given the strength of the developer community and the results we have already achieved, it’s only a matter of time before we see soft cost reductions attributable to the Orange Button standard.”

Raising the bar on industry IT

When the Department of Energy launched the the Orange Button Initiative with a grant in 2016, inefficient data gathering and management practices were slowing market growth. Some financiers reported spending hundreds of dollars an hour for lawyers to review project agreements and tens of thousands of dollars on due diligence before they could finalize projects. Data standards improve growth potential for everyone.

As an open-source software project, Orange Button has continually raised the bar on information technology (IT) capabilities throughout the industry. One benefit, asset managers no longer have to expend resources creating proprietary systems for tracking and reporting on solar performance evaluations. They can use the classification system in the Orange Button standard, which was developed by a team of industry experts, including a performance engineering manager at sPower, the largest private owner of operating solar assets in the US.

Machine-readable data sheets

In July, California updated the smart inverter requirements in its Rule 21 interconnection regulations, ordering grid-tied inverters to activate more of their built-in grid-stabilizing features. Without data standards, rule changes like this can create inefficient processes for many organizations. Inverter makers would have to produce new versions of their product data sheets, and utilities responsible for grid interconnection would have to collect the updated data sheets and enter the compliance information into their IT systems.

With the Orange Button data standard, inverter makers can streamline compliance reporting, which simplifies data collection for utilities. In fact, Orange Button makes it possible to reduce data collection costs by making data sheets and other project documents machine readable. Clean Power Research has demonstrated this capability by using Orange Button data to report an updated list of Rule 21-compliant solar equipment to California utilities.

Translating legacy data

One of the biggest anticipated barriers to adoption of the Orange Button standard is migrating legacy data to Orange Button data. kWh Analytics has taken the first step toward solving for this problem with the release of Orange Button Translate. This publicly available, proof-of-concept software allows users to fill in Excel spreadsheets with production data, solar array metadata, and solar system metadata, then upload the data to generate Orange Button-compatible files.

“We support Orange Button because it will reduce the cost for risk managers to monitor key metrics,” said Jason Kaminsky, chief operating officer at kWh Analytics.“ Orange Button Translate is the first piece of software designed exclusively to support the new data standards.”

What’s next?

Looking ahead, software developers are continually working to improve the Orange Button data standard through public and online meetings of the Orange Button workgroup, and occasional in-person programming sessions. SunSpec Alliance hosted the latest active coding session, or hackathon, Nov. 7-8 at its offices in San Jose. The event served as a kickoff for the Orange Button core library, a set of programming files that will be included in all implementations of Orange Button software.

“Energy is the last fundamental industry to go digital because it hasn’t had communications standards like Orange Button to streamline data exchange,” said Tom Tansy, chairman of SunSpec Alliance. “Cost reductions for solar hardware have defined the past ten years in the solar industry. The next ten years will be remembered for our ability to drive down soft costs using data standards.”

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

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