The Solar Software Ecosystem: Page 2 of 5
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Software in this category automates or expedites activities such as lead targeting and nurturing, CRM, sales design, bidding and estimating, and proposal generation.
Proposal generation. Presales solutions include purpose-built proposal tools for solar companies. OnGrid is a pioneer in this market, having introduced its OnGrid tool in 2005. EnergyPeriscope, MODsolar and SolarNexus are examples of second-generation tools, introduced between 2007 and 2011, with expanded functional capabilities that address the larger sales process. Aurora Solar, ENACT Systems, Energy Toolbase and Sighten are some of the third-generation tools introduced after 2012. Enhancements include advanced features such as more-integrated financial services offerings, 3-D modeling and shade analysis, and project management workflow automation. I reviewed many of these platforms in my article “Residential Solar Software Business Platforms” (SolarPro, March/April 2015); 14 months is a long time in the context of software development, so the feature set comparisons in that article are not current.
Bidding and estimating. While cost estimating is a key component of proposal generation, the estimating functionality in solar proposal platforms varies significantly. Some platforms estimate costs and generate bids based on simple dollar-per-watt inputs, whereas other platforms generate a bill of materials based on design inputs and then apply a material markup to each line item. A new market entrant, PVBid, has introduced a specialty estimating platform for solar installation companies that uses actual cost data from the field to inform the estimating and bidding process.
Sales design. A decade ago, solar installation companies had to use multiple tools and personnel to determine the preliminary system designs that inform the sales process. For example, a site assessor might use Solar Pathfinder or Solmetric SunEye to determine the usable array area and potential array capacity. An in-house sales representative might then use PVWatts to determine the optimal array capacity by comparing modeled PV system production to historic energy consumption, and then turn to an online string-sizing tool to match this array to an inverter. After that, a system designer or draftsperson might use anything from paper and pencil to computer-aided drafting tools to generate a file showing the array on the prospective customer’s roof.
In the mid 2000s, vendors started introducing specialty software for solar companies that automates these disparate steps and datasets. Today, many proposal generation tools or business management platforms—including ENACT, MODsolar, QuickSolar and Sighten—have a visual interface that allows users to access 2-D imagery for a property, place modules on the roof and quickly compare multiple array options. Products such as Aurora and HelioScope allow more-detailed shade analyses and also integrate some basic NEC validations into their system design tools.
PROJECT MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS
These software solutions generally focus on improving business operations by expediting transactions with customers, automatically assigning tasks within an organization and tracking project milestones. Some specialty software solutions address specific needs for solar engineers.
Workflow optimization. It is difficult to overstate the value of software tools that help solar companies manage the complex and constantly evolving workflow from the point of sale through project delivery. Part of the reason that the solar industry has relatively high customer acquisition costs is that many organizations do not adequately invest in project delivery improvements. Customers who have a poor experience during project delivery will not refer the installation company to friends, nor will they encourage others to go solar. Though some of the specialty platforms profiled in my 2015 article can expedite project management and delivery, many solar installation companies rely on general-industry CRM tools such as Salesforce.
Engineering tools. Whereas sales design tools expedite presales activities, specialty solar engineering tools focus on automating tasks associated with project delivery. These activities include generating plan sets, analyzing real-world conditions and providing instructions for the construction phase. Aurora, PVComplete and SolarDesignTool are examples of specialty software tools that fulfill solar project engineering needs, albeit in different ways for different constituencies.
Software tools in this category automate asset management functions or provide monitoring solutions for individual systems or project portfolios.
Asset management. Vendors offering specialty solar asset and portfolio management software include 3megawatt, HelioStats, Mercatus, PowerHub, Ra Power Management and Sighten. These platforms provide views and user experiences tailored to the needs of different project stakeholders, and manage financial and operational data coming from portfolios of projects and rolling down to the individual asset level. Vendors with solar asset management platforms have invested heavily in reporting and analytics interfaces, above and beyond any other feature set. Among other things, these interfaces allow users to automate compliance reports and performance risk analyses. Ra Power Management and Sighten provide different fund and finance management perspectives that are useful for investors and companies managing more-complicated residential solar finance offerings.
Monitoring. Well-known companies such as Draker, Fat Spaniel (now part of ABB via Power-One) and meteocontrol pioneered solar power plant monitoring. More recently, vendors such as AlsoEnergy, eGauge, Locus Energy and Solar-Log have introduced simpler and more user-friendly monitoring solutions to market. The latest innovators in this market, such as Curb, seek to integrate solar monitoring solutions with the Internet of things (IoT) by bringing a wealth of data to consumers or facility managers.