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My Solar Family: an app for energy awareness

Paolo Zurru, creator of My Solar Family, receives the award 
Solar energy by now has become a strong component of the world's energy mix. However, in the past few years this sector has been undergoing a puzzling crisis in Italy. Between 2006 and 2013 more than 600,000 PV plants were purchased and installed in the country, turning many private citizens into energy producers. And Sardinia has played its part too: as of today the Region has more than 26,700 active installations, with power generation in excess of 884,000 MW/h per year. But since the end of the "Conto Energia" (Energy Account) - the incentive scheme promoting the uptake of solar systems - there has been a drop in the installation of new plants; above all, nothing is being done to disseminate good practices for the management of existing systems and optimisation of their performance.

We are told why this is happening by Paolo Zurru, an engineering manager with a strong background as a physics researcher, who has created the My Solar Family app to address this problem. The project was presented at the GEC 2015, the global entrepreneurship conference held in Milan from 16 to 20 March: here Paolo participated in the "Battle of Ideas" organised by Ninja Marketing, winning the award for the "Green" Section.

What is My Solar Family and how did it come into being?
My Solar Family offers free-of-charge technical assistance to monitor the functioning of household plants producing clean energy from solar sources and optimize their output. It includes a website and a smartphone app available free of charge to all. Its aim is to help owners of solar installations. This is a community composed of determined people, but people who in some cases do not possess the technical skills necessary to optimize management of their installation, because in this sector – which is quite new – there is still lack of skills in the efficient use of energy. This community deserves being helped, because "energy makers" are true innovators.

Indeed, the spread of household PV plants has brought about a paradigm shift, with individual citizens becoming energy producers. However, in our country the transformation from passive consumers to consumers and producers has been only half achieved: only a share of the energy produced by these systems is actually consumed on the spot, while the greater part flows into the national grid. Thus, the hoped-for energy independence has been achieved only in part and the small producers have been forced to maintain their contracts for the purchase of energy from the main providers. What is more, part of the solar systems installed are not employed to their full potential, because after the rush to buy these systems driven by government incentives, only a few owners then went on to acquire the technical know-how necessary to ensure best performance and maximize their energy independence. They lack awareness on the quality of their systems, and it is to fill this gap that I created My Solar Family.

Explain how the app works - what does it offer to plant owners who decide to use it?
Private citizens install a system on their roof. The system works and the owner is aware of this, but what he doesn't know is whether it's working well or not. How well is it working? Very few owners are able to reply to this question. With My Solar Family they enter the credentials for the management of the Conto Energia of their system and the software downloads for them the data regarding their plant, providing a summary of the incentives obtained with the Conto Energia and the other data necessary for performance analysis.

The analysis is based on a method which I have created (patent pending) and on experimental data acquired in more than ten years' research on PV plants. In just a few minutes, the owners receive information on the performance of their system: if it's working well, they will see a green smiley face, if it could do better, a yellow puzzled face, and if performance is quite poor, a red sad face. These data are collated and compared with those of other plants in the same area, to eliminate all doubts as to specific weather conditions in the area: a system installed at 50 m from another but which – under the same conditions – has half the energy performance, certainly has a problem. Perhaps over the years a tree has grown and is overshadowing it. Perhaps it is damaged. The idea is precisely this: ensure that the great potential of Italy's PV plants is exploited fully.

Apart from this, on the website you will be able to see your energy production and your own self-consumption, the first step in the direction of energy self-sufficiency. This phase meets requirement no 1: creating awareness. Then comes phase no 2: trouble-shooting. The My Solar Family website has a list of the most common problems which can be solved directly. If you can't find a solution because the problem is not a simple one, then of course you must contact a technician. And on My Solar Family you will find a list of solar technicians working in the area. In phase no 3 proposals will be made for reaching energy self-sufficiency, thus achieving the key target of democratising energy production.

What is your business model?
The business model is very simple. I develop and provide for end users services which are completely free, in order to foster the culture of energy efficiency. I also enable sector operators, such as maintenance firms, the possibility to monitor their customers' systems. Maintenance firms purchase an annual subscription which also gives them visibility in a specific geographical area and allows them to be contacted by new customers. The subscription system provides the revenue to make the project financially viable, also because subscription fees are quite low making it a cost-effective investment.

One part of the system you have created is based on the processing of big data. What are the opportunities offered by this sector and what are the difficulties for those looking to exploit its opportunities?
In many sectors we have already accumulated vast amounts of data allowing us to increase our knowledge beyond all expectations. But having data available does not necessarily mean being able to extract useful information. It takes a great deal of energy to 'select and translate' in the proper manner these flows of information in order to make them accessible also to those people lacking specific technical knowledge. There are many possibilities and I agree with the EU's clear policy to make large databases public and usable: when you free up resources you can trigger a multiplier effect, thanks to the unexpected and unpredictable creativity of individual users.

You left Sardinia to pursue your education, but then you came back to set up your own business. Why? What opportunities did your homeland offer?
To tell the truth, after my university studies in Emilia Romagna I remained to work in the north-east of Italy for 10 years. Often, those islanders who study and work outside Sardinia then find it hard to return to the island to set up a business with national or international market reach. A degree of geographical isolation exists and is perceptible, but certain sectors, such as ICTs, are less affected by it and are able to prosper. We can certainly boast of several high-profile ventures.

My Solar Family is a project combining renewables and ICTs, hence Sardinia in general and Cagliari in particular are very suitable locations. Add to this – and I wish to stress this point – that the project was initially financed completely by private Sardinian capital. This shows that a good number of Sardinian businesses are willing to invest in innovative ideas and technologies. Last but not least, Sardegna Ricerche's start-up and innovation support programmes have allowed us to cut significantly development times and time-to-market: not many regions in Italy can boast of the same service quality and the same professional skills.

Carlo Contu

Useful links
My Solar Family