The Solar Software Ecosystem
Inside this Article
Software specifically developed for solar market applications has proliferated in recent years due to sustained industry growth. A San Francisco Bay Area subject matter expert curates highlights and trends from the expanding network of specialty solar software and services.
While software is a luxury product for some solar companies, it is integral to the success of others. For example, many of the largest residential solar sales, financing or installation companies—such as SolarCity, Sungevity and Sunrun—use software tools to manage sales, system design, business operations and the overall customer experience. The use of these software tools, combined with innovative financial services products and strategic development, is part of what has allowed these companies to scale and capture a large share of the market. In the commercial sector, many companies are likewise turning to software to expedite the due diligence process for power purchase agreements or to automate routine aspects of solar design work.
In this article, I explore the solar software ecosystem at a high level by defining some basic product categories in relation to different project phases and activities. I then profile a representative set of specialty solar software platforms. Given the dynamic nature of both software companies and the solar industry, this is by no means a complete and exhaustive overview of solar-focused software. Further, I do not intend these software profiles to serve as a qualitative analysis of a platform’s completeness or market viability. Collectively, however, these vendors and their platforms epitomize the expanding software marketplace as it evolves to meet the needs of the solar industry.
Finally, I address software integration challenges and provide some best practices related to software adoption. To make informed software adoption decisions, business owners ultimately need to examine customer and employee pain points, and then conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis. Ideally, software automation should not only improve the customer experience, but also positively affect a company’s bottom line.
A System of Interconnected Parts
The solar software ecosystem includes platforms for diverse markets, applications and stakeholders. It includes residential- and commercial-focused software tools that address everything from project origination to asset management. It includes platforms specifically designed for sales professionals, engineers and O&M providers, as well as platforms designed to improve operational efficiency across an entire business or between project partners. It also includes content providers that supply essential data.
The table (see Inside This Article) summarizes some of the companies and platforms that make up the solar software ecosystem. To keep this list manageable, I have generally emphasized self-service software that subscribers can use to perform a task or set of tasks. I have also excluded common customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation tools such as HubSpot and Salesforce. Though many solar companies use these types of platforms, they are not unique to the solar market but rather meet general business needs.
One way to subdivide the solar software market is according to categories that correspond to different project phases or activities. For example, many vendors focus on providing content or expediting presales, project management or post-installation activities.
Vendors in this category offer access to content (data) that solar companies or other software providers need to generate proposals or optimize designs. The content that is most relevant to the solar market generally comprises aerial images and geospatial data, as well as electricity consumption and utility tariff data.
Aerial images and geospatial data. Companies serving the solar market use these data for customer qualification and system design. Traditionally, the solar industry has relied on well-known companies such as Bing, Google or Pictometry for 2-D aerial imagery. Recent innovations include deployable imagery services such as Airphrame that use aerial robotics to return newer and often more granular site data, though not instantaneously.
Electricity consumption and utility tariff data. Solar service providers use these data to model energy savings and financial performance. The most accurate models combine utility tariff data with interval data from smart meters. Granular interval data allows software to model financial performance under different time-of-use rate structures and to estimate demand charge reductions. (See “The Value of Interval Data in Solar Project Analysis,” SolarPro, January/February 2016.) Utilities that have opted in to the Green Button Initiative make these data available in a computer-readable format; some of these utilities provide access to granular 15-minute interval data, which has enabled new software services. Companies such as UtilityAPI and WattzOn streamline access to Green Button data; new proposal tools such as Energy Toolbase use these interval data.