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B.C. firm looks to sunnier U.S. markets for solar success

High cost of electricity in some states makes America a more fertile market for local tech
Neurio interim CEO Keith Marett with his company’s basic home setup, including a digital data control and smartphone app | Chung Chow

Taking in the white beaches and mai tais might be top of mind for most visitors to Hawaii.

For Clay Howey, it was the sight of people’s homes that caught his attention throughout a recent Maui vacation.

“It’s absolutely staggering the penetration of renewable energy there,” said the research head of the BC Institute of Technology’s Smart Microgrid Applied Research Team. “Almost every rooftop has got solar panels on it … because the price of electricity is so much higher there than it is here.”

B.C.’s relatively cheap hydroelectric power is also why solar-focused companies like Neurio Technology Inc. are concentrating on sunnier foreign markets.

The Vancouver-based company, which specializes in managing renewable energy flow in homes, initially focused on delivering basic energy-use information to users as their homes tapped into power from solar panels.

But as energy storage units have become cheaper and more numerous, Neurio began developing more intelligent software to tell systems when to use solar power, when to use battery power and when to draw from the grid.

Interim CEO Keith Marett said the company will eventually focus on helping customers turn their homes into mini-utilities as they generate solar power from their rooftops that can be sold back into the grid.

Earlier this year, however, BC Hydro curtailed a similar plan whereby it would provide customers credits if they produced more solar power than they needed. The utility would then pay them out at a rate of $0.10 per kilowatt hour if customers hadn’t used those credits after a year.

BC Hydro found that most of the program’s 1,130 customers were abiding by the spirit of the program, but some were purposely generating excess energy to get the payouts.

It has applied to the British Columbia Utilities Commission to prevent future customers from doing the same.

Meanwhile a Solar Foundation report estimated that the industry in the U.S. market generated US$154 billion in economic activity in 2016.

The following year, Neurio became profitable for the first time since its founding in 2005, according to Marett. He estimated revenue for the Vancouver firm will grow 300% this year compared with 2017.

Because Neurio is a private company, Marett said he couldn’t reveal revenue numbers, but he expects to double the company’s head count to 70 employees from 35 by next year. Last month, Neurio elected a new board of directors to help oversee growth. It includes a who’s who of the local tech sector, such as former Sierra Wireless (TSX:SW) CEO David Sutcliffe, Copperleaf Technologies Inc. CEO Judi Hess and Traction on Demand CEO Greg Malpass.

Despite the B.C. pedigree, Marett said, Neurio is still focused on markets like California and Arizona, where the sun is as constant as high energy costs.

“There are 100 million homes in the U.S.; less than 1% have been penetrated for solar,” he said.

But various companies within the industry are facing severe bottlenecks, perhaps none more publicly than Tesla (Nasdaq:TSLA).

A CNBC report last month revealed Tesla subsidiary SolarCity had only a dozen of its solar roof units connected to the grid as of last May. This comes after Telsa made a splashy US$2.6 billion acquisition of the solar company in 2016.

Howey acknowledged the industry was more immediately viable in countries like the U.S. and Australia, but he said adoption rates in B.C. could eventually catch up.

“You’ve got to remember this is the birthplace of Greenpeace. There are a lot of people who are very environmentally minded, so there’s still quite a bit of interest in renewable energy and energy storage. Economically it’s a bit of a challenge, but I think there’s a lot of people here who still have interest in it.”

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