As solar photovoltaic (PV) hardware technology has evolved over the past 10 years, so too has the selection and importance of effective software tools. Solar software tools can help with a broad range of tasks including solar potential assessment, energy output calculation, financial analysis, lead tracking, system design, proposal generation, project management, system monitoring, and more.
The evolution of solar software has mimicked application development trends in other industries. From an initial focus on standalone tools that perform discrete tasks (e.g. system design or proposal generation), now there are integrated software solutions that reduce streamline setup and promote better use of a professional’s time. Recent partnerships have resulted in the introduction of standardized data formats that allow programs from different vendors to intelligently “speak” with each other. This cross-compatibility leverages the power of software technology to reduce overhead for managing solar projects - one of the most significant contributors to PV soft costs - and can improve the quality of fielded solar throughout the entire project lifecycle.
In addition to providing guidelines or financial incentives, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has invested in the development of free software tools to support the solar industry. These resources serve as a cost-effective solution for smaller companies that may not have the resources to develop in-house applications and provide a starting point for larger companies that can add tailored enhancements. With continued development and input from the industry on requirements, such tools can further address common problems and benefit the entire PV industry. Government-backed solutions also provide standards by which industry participants can more readily perform commonly-accepted analyses.
Some of the more well-known solutions include
- PVWatts: a Web-based PV energy output calculator that is used directly by end users (National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL])
- System Advisor Model (SAM): a sophisticated desktop-based system modeling program (NREL and Sandia National Laboratories)
- OpenEI: a Web-based wiki (i.e., open reference system) of energy information, such as utility companies and electricity rates (NREL)
There are two sets of commercially-available software solutions used within the solar industry: general tools that handle specific functions across industries, and industry-specific solutions that typically handle one or more functions with greater industry specificity. The first category includes software solutions like Oracle (Enterprise Resource Planning), Salesforce (Customer Relationship Management) and IBM’s Maximo (asset management). These solutions are often used by larger, more sophisticated companies due to license costs and overall complexity. Each of these solutions requires significant customization to meet user needs and therefore may not be sufficient for the majority of solar industry companies.
In the last few years, several companies have introduced next-generation solar-specific tools to address unique challenges faced by solar professionals. These tools address a range of needs including
- Creating better financial analyses in the solar sales process;
- Designing more accurate and efficient system design layouts and calculations; and
- Enabling more modern and sophisticated performance monitoring.
Nearly every aspect of the solar industry’s operations has been modernized by software applications in one way or another. These solutions will continue to evolve to further eliminate inefficiencies throughout the industry.
Advancing towards an Integrated Approach
While many of the above tools provide excellent solutions to specific challenges, it is difficult for any one of them to act as a single solution that addresses every possible need. Solutions with open architecture that promotes application inter-operability and/or that offers a broad set of features to address challenges throughout the solar project life cycle will ultimately have the greatest impact to help reduce PV soft costs.
Examples of major initiatives which promote the seamless exchange of data between and among product from multiple vendors include the SunSpec Alliance, which establishes software standards related to PV system tracking and monitoring, and the Integrated Energy Project (IEP) Model, a project funded by the California Solar Initiative to provide a standard XML format for need-based customizations.
SolarNexus provides an end-to-end solar business management platform that brings together such dissimilar functions as customer lead tracking, sales proposal generation, end-to-end project management, document repository, incentive filing, and purchasing management. This integrated platform eliminates the necessity of constantly re-entering data, saving time and money for installers.
So where is solar software headed in 2012 and beyond? And, more importantly, what are the market needs? In addition to the trends of integration and consolidated functionality described above, there are some exciting areas of research and development underway:
One area of particular relevance to independent system operators, utilities and financiers is a way to improve solar forecasting accuracy at sub-hourly, hourly, and day-ahead intervals. These efforts are important not just for grid management but for more accurate predictive analysis on the cash flows generated by solar systems. Advances in how performance is understood based on solar irradiance, cloud formation, and other weather-related factors will provide better accuracy in how solar is financed, managed, and deployed.
Remote System Design
The best known example of remote system design tool is probably iQuote, a solar lease quote service provided by Sungevity. This pioneering service allows a property owner to enter basic information about a home or business and receive within a few days a customized solar system proposal via e-mail without an on-site visit by a Sungevity representative. Completing a zero truck roll sale of a solar system is the industry’s zenith in reducing the cost of sales for solar installers. Cost of sales for solar installers is typically higher than comparable construction-related costs due to a number of factors including a low consumer familiarity with solar technologies and issues that can make a solar system financially unfeasible, such as lack of solar access or an aging roof.
However, tools like iQuote still have limitations. Because the analysis and system designs are still generated by actual humans, the customer must wait several days for results. In addition, the tools available for staff to perform the remote assessment are limited in terms of modeling and measuring the roof surface, accounting for roof obstructions, determining sources of shading on the roof, and analyzing the roof’s condition. Improving the accuracy and usefulness of such tools is one of the most active areas of software development in the solar industry.
New calculators under development leverage advanced technologies including
- aerial photography (i.e., low-flying plane imagery) rather than satellite imagery to improve resolution and provide the perspective view required to analyze shading impacts;
- sophisticated measurement tools for calculating available roof area for a solar array; and
- integration with vast databases of related information such as weather data, demographics, local regulations
Without such advanced tools, generating reliable quotes based on existing data can be a risky endeavor for solar analysis companies. Most installers still require a site visit for a visual inspection of the roof and potential shading objects as well as other attributes that can affect the cost of an installation. However, the near future is likely to bring a number of exciting solutions that will place more information at the hands of consumers, and hopefully allow solar installers to generate accurate sales quotes faster than ever — maybe without even leaving their desks.
The solar industry continues to discuss new databases and tools that can ease the challenges solar installers face in the permitting process. Jurisdictional code variances and substantial paperwork - as well as unpredictable requirements, costs, and turnaround times – have resulted in inefficient permitting processes that account for a significant portion of the soft costs in a solar installation. Fortunately, solutions are in progress. The DOE’s SunShot Initiative, which funds Solar 3.0, provides funding to build databases and software solutions to unify the permitting process, also a key goal of Solar 3.0 activities. Read the Solar 3.0 Permitting section for more information.
Some of the activities funded under SunShot attempt to build an end-to-end solar permitting platform to streamline the process between a solar contractor and an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Though this is a desirable outcome, challenges may occur in trying to introduce entirely new permitting systems, since many AHJs have already invested in permit management software. It may be additionally difficult to introduce systems specific to solar and separate from the rest of the building permit process. A potential solution is to first focus on tools that vet solar system specs to ensure they meet basic requirements and that can be employed within existing systems to produce a permit package that adheres to a standard like the Solar ABC’s Expedited Permit Model Process.
Monitoring Management Solutions
While monitoring software has been around for some time, advances from vendors like Locus Energy provide new fleet-wide monitoring platform solutions to enable installers and financiers to better manage and maintain an entire portfolio of systems, with more sophisticated performance yield analysis features.
Solar 3.0 offers regional workshops and webinars that include guidance about software and online PV tools. Check the Events Calendar to see when the next training opportunities are coming up.
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For companies and individuals wishing to help address software needs for the solar industry, here are various recommendations on how to participate: