SunPower Delivers Customers Solar Energy Insight Using AWS IoT Core
Renewable energy company SunPower wants its customers to engage more with their energy use. Despite the vital role energy plays in modern life, a survey from Accenture reports that consumers spend less than 10 minutes a year interacting with utility companies. In an effort to flip the script, SunPower is encouraging consumers to take energy matters into their own hands by installing solar panels and batteries on their properties and actively tracking the way they generate, store, and use energy. “Solar is an obvious energy choice for almost every American homeowner, but it’s only on roughly 2 percent of American homes,” says Jake Wachman, vice president of software at SunPower. “Anything we can do to make solar more understandable and accessible will accelerate the inevitable adoption of solar.”
To engage customers, SunPower needed to develop the means to quickly process data from a large heterogenous fleet of more than three million devices used by over 220,000 customers. Facing performance challenges with its legacy system, the energy company ultimately turned to Amazon Web Services (AWS) as it engineered a solution using the Internet of Things (IoT). At the center of the solution is AWS IoT Core, a managed cloud service that lets connected devices easily and securely interact with cloud applications and other devices. Using AWS IoT Core and other AWS managed services, SunPower could smoothly integrate different types of hardware into its monitoring platform, enabling it to create efficient workflows and manage data more efficiently.
AWS IoT Core enabled us to use things like MQTT to create the most efficient data streams possible, reduce our cellular data usage, and really reduce our wireless internet data usage in general."
Director of Software Engineering, SunPower
Changing the Way People Think about Energy
SunPower wants to lead the way in energy services and grid monetization by helping homeowners control their electricity experience. Part of this initiative is SunPower’s fully integrated battery solution, SunVault Storage, which helps consumers store and exchange solar energy with the grid in ways that were not feasible historically. SunVault Storage presents a unique set of challenges because the customer can see real-time data from the battery and operate the battery in a way that is economical and that maximizes the use of solar energy. “We believe live data will create multiple valuable insights for homeowners so that they can better control their electricity use,” says Miltos Vratimos, senior product manager for SunPower’s monitoring platform. “This will provide homeowners with storage systems to more directly and more actively manage their battery and solar systems. And, lastly, this will help homeowners take more ownership over their electricity usage and their impact on the environment.”
The company found that its legacy monitoring platform, based on an on-premises Microsoft SQL Server setup, was not ready for its next-generation products. “Because we have all these devices in the field, the way they communicate data to our platform is one of our big challenges,” says Patrick Franz, director of software engineering at SunPower. “Many times, the devices can use things such as a homeowner’s existing wireless internet, but when that is not available, they will fall back onto a cellular connection. Data can be slow to process.” An AWS customer since 2015, SunPower was aware of the possibilities on AWS, and the company looked to the cloud provider to help build a new monitoring platform.
Moving to Managed IoT on AWS
SunPower found that AWS IoT Core helped standardize the means by which different types of hardware could deliver vast amounts of data to the company’s cloud platform. “AWS IoT Core enabled us to use things like MQTT to create the most efficient data streams possible, reduce our cellular data usage, and really reduce our wireless internet data usage in general,” says Franz. The company also cites AWS IoT Core’s security features as a key benefit. “X.509 certificates for authentication and encryption are huge,” says Franz. “We build security into everything we do, and AWS makes that much easier.”
The managed environment from AWS and its serverless capabilities offered SunPower further benefits to scale its platform. The company uses AWS Lambda, which enables customers to run code without provisioning or managing servers. “AWS Lambda functions have helped us do lots of decoupled development, and they size up with us,” says Franz. “We’re not really worried about things like figuring out how much compute capacity we need during peak sunlight hours on the West Coast versus overnight. The AWS Lambda functions just handle that for us.” Franz also highlights AWS Lambda’s compatibility with different coding languages. “If we have teams that have strength in Python or teams that have strength in Node.js or Java, they can build their functionality the way they want to,” he says. “And that’s something that would be very challenging outside the serverless environment.”
Another element of SunPower’s monitoring platform is Amazon DynamoDB, a key-value and document database that delivers single-digit millisecond performance at any scale. “We use Amazon DynamoDB for so many things now—it’s kind of our primary landing area,” says Franz. “It’s really simple to use, and the performance is good. It enables us to quickly get data in, and then we can have more structured operations happen with it later.”
Now SunPower can dynamically scale its system as it adds new customers and devices in the field. “To support something like this on premises would’ve taken a lot of support staff, a lot more design, and more architecture that’s separated from our core interest—which is getting all this data and presenting it to our customers,” says Franz. “We can run a much more complex platform than we had in our legacy system using far fewer DevOps resources and fewer engineering resources because we’ve offloaded a lot of that to AWS.”
Finding Innovative Ways to Power the Future
Using AWS IoT Core alongside AWS Lambda and Amazon DynamoDB, SunPower was able to collect vast amounts of data from millions of devices and deliver important insights to customers. Going forward, SunPower plans to use AWS services to enable what it calls “live power data,” essentially creating an even-faster pipeline through which customers can see their energy data.
Broadly speaking, SunPower sees AWS as a fitting collaborator in its mission to interest homeowners in solar energy. “The best way to engage homeowners is to build a superior customer experience,” says Vratimos. “The customer-monitoring experience through the SunPower platform and the IoT cloud educates homeowners about solar savings and electricity generation. Our apps help homeowners understand how energy moves from solar panels on the roof to the grid and throughout their devices. With a great IoT-based experience, we show the many benefits of solar and engage with our customers, who, in turn, refer friends and family to enjoy the same experience. With every new solar roof, we are accomplishing our mission to change the way our world is powered.”
To learn more, visit https://aws.amazon.com/iot-core/.
Founded in 1985, SunPower is a US-based solar power company that provides solar energy solutions to home and business owners across the country.
Benefits of AWS
- Enabled use of X.509 certificates for authentication and encryption
- Enabled scalability using AWS serverless capabilities
- Created compatibility with different programming languages
- Enabled 220,000 solar customers to track and manage their energy use
AWS Services Used
AWS IoT Core
AWS IoT Core is a managed cloud service that lets connected devices easily and securely interact with cloud applications and other devices.
AWS Lambda lets you run code without provisioning or managing servers. You pay only for the compute time you consume.
Amazon DynamoDB is a key-value and document database that delivers single-digit millisecond performance at any scale.
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