In 2022, all major US cellular networks – including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile – have either shut down their 3G service, or will sunset their 3G service by the end of the year, with some starting as early as February. While you might be wondering why a solar blog is talking about cell phones, you may be surprised to learn that most modern solar power systems rely on cellular connectivity to power the remote monitoring capabilities inside the solar inverter.
In this article, we take a look at why 3G networks are being phased out, what will happen to your solar power system after the 3G sunset occurs, how the 3G sunset will impact your production monitoring and performance-based incentives, and how to upgrade your solar panel system to the newer 4G technology.
Why 3G Networks Are Being Phased Out
When it comes to wireless cellular technology, there’s only so much space available for the signals to share. In short: The cellular companies are running out of room! To free up space, carriers need to turn off the older 3G (third generation) networks to make room for more advanced network infrastructure, like 5G.
5G (or fifth generation) networks provide many benefits over the older 3G technology. Data transfer speeds are significantly faster, response times are shorter, and more devices can be connected at the same time. All of these benefits are designed to enable new technologies and devices like virtual reality, self-driving vehicles, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
When carriers were making room for their new 4G service, a similar shutdown happened as carriers sunsetted their 2G networks. Now it’s just time to go through that same process again. Ultimately, this isn’t new, and we’ve been preparing for this change for some time.
What Other Technologies Will Be Impacted?
Millions of devices are being impacted, including cell phones, medical devices, tablets, smartwatches, home security systems, and even certain gas-powered and electric vehicles—all of which may need upgrades or replacements.
This means that the 3G shutdown is not only affecting solar customers nationally, but also multiple other industries, and every wireless device operating in the country with a 3G modem.
How The 3G Shutdown Will Impact Your Solar Panel System
Most solar power systems, including those installed by Palmetto, use a solar inverter with a cellular signal device and its own cellular data plan. Historically (2019 & prior) these devices and plans were based on 3G technology.
Production-wise, 3G does not impact your solar system’s ability to produce clean energy. The cellular device in the inverter is merely the communication method that enables system monitoring, and while it is housed within the inverter, it does not impact solar production.
However, this device is what allows Palmetto and our customers to wirelessly monitor system production. It is therefore a crucial aspect of the solar installation, since your inverter will eventually stop reporting production data if the device is not upgraded.
This upgrade is especially important if you participate in production-based incentives, like SRECs. Failure to upgrade your 3G modem may affect your ability to continue receiving those valuable incentives.
Performance and Production Monitoring
Thanks to the cellular modem built in to most solar inverters, the energy generation (also called energy production) of your solar power system can be monitored remotely. This energy production data is what powers the Palmetto App, and allows you to monitor the performance of your system, tracking how much power it produces over time, and compare that data to things like temperature and cloud cover.
In addition to keeping an eye on how much electricity your system is generating, cellular connectivity also allows companies like Palmetto to do remote monitoring, making sure your system is functioning correctly and producing all of the power that it should be. In many cases, Palmetto is even able to diagnose issues remotely, and fix them without having to send out a service technician.
Without remote monitoring that’s provided by the cellular connection, you may not notice underperformance problems until many months after they first occur, which can mean lost savings and less money in your pocket.
Performance-Based Incentives (SRECs)
If you live in an area with performance-based incentives like Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) then remote production monitoring is a critical component of receiving those credits. SREC programs use cellular-based systems to automatically track the number of megawatt hours (MWh) that your system produces, and you can earn up to 1 SREC per 1MWh of solar electricity generated.
Unfortunately, if your system stops reporting production data because your 3G modem can’t connect to the internet, you’ll also stop receiving SRECs for your production. Without those SREC payments, your total savings decreases, which can increase the expected payback period of your system.
3G Sunset Timing
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has been planning for the 3G phase out since 2019, but 2022 is the year that the changes are finally happening, and networks are being turned off for good.
Each mobile carrier has set its own schedule, but the expected timing is as follows:
AT&T: February 22, 2022
Sprint: March 31, 2022
T-Mobile: July 1, 2022
Verizon: December 31, 2022
How To Upgrade Your Solar Power System
If you are a Palmetto customer, we are working with local technicians to upgrade all homeowner devices. Select groups will be offered a free upgrade, while others may have to pay for some or all of this service, depending on various factors.
As part of the upgrade from 3G to 4G technology, we are also offering affected customers a free 1-year subscription of Palmetto Protect Essentials – a $144 value – at no charge to those who opt in.
You can learn more about this process in our 4G Upgrade Guide.
If you are not a Palmetto customer, we recommend that you reach out to your solar installer to find out what your options are for getting your solar inverter upgraded from 3G to 4G. Most solar inverter brands offer a 4G upgrade kit, although they will normally need to be installed by a trained technician, such as 365 Pronto, and the cost is not covered under any kind of existing warranty.
If you are unable to contact your solar installer (perhaps because they went out of business) then you may be able to contact the inverter manufacturer directly to ask about getting your system upgraded.
Can You Connect Your Solar Inverter To The Internet?
If you can’t or don’t want to get your system upgraded, you may have another option. Both Enphase and SolarEdge system inverters offer the ability to connect directly to the internet through your home’s service. This can be done with either WiFi or an Ethernet cable, although you may need an installer to make this connection if it requires you to remove the inverter cover.
However, keep in mind that one advantage of cellular connectivity is that a 4G cell modem produces near constant connection, so you may lose access to certain monitoring benefits, or have unreliable production data (which can potentially mean the loss of some SRECs) if you aren’t able to get a stable connection.
What Solar Power Owners Need To Know About The 3G Shutdown
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are major telecommunications companies that are shutting down their 3G networks to make room for newer 5G technology. While this wasn’t directly intended to target solar owners, the reliance on 3G modems by older solar inverters has an unintended effect of disabling certain features and benefits once this shutdown occurs.
Thankfully, you can upgrade your system to get back the ability to do performance and production monitoring and receive any performance-based incentives like SRECs that your system may be earning. If you’re a Palmetto customer, that upgrade process should be relatively seamless and straightforward.
If you need any other service or maintenance for your solar power system, be sure to check out our full suite of solar panel service and maintenance programs, performed by trusted local experts that are trained to get your system back up and running in no time.