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.
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.
For simplicity and transparency, I have organized the following software platform profiles alphabetically. The majority of these vendors offer a free trial period for their software that typically lasts 30 days. Some vendors provide full access to software features during this trial period, while others limit the features available. Product support options also vary, ranging from email or phone support to online help centers.
Keep in mind that software developers change and iterate their products multiple times per year. Many of these software companies have release roadmaps for introducing additional service layers or significant platform features later in 2016. Check the vendor’s website or call the company for the most up-to-date information.
Airphrame Airphrame is a deployable service that allows users to obtain different types of aerial and geospatial data for potential sites on demand. The company can provide high-resolution 2-D orthomaps and 3-D point clouds. The former provide the same perspective as Google Earth but reflect present site conditions; the latter are similar to LIDAR data and allow users to determine the slope, azimuth and size of the area. Airphrame can also provide a 3-D model that users of computer-aided drafting programs such as AutoCAD and SketchUp Pro can import to assist in their design work. AutoCAD users can import and manipulate raw-point cloud data and aerial imagery. Users can even import certain types of Airphrame data into solar design tools such as Aurora and HelioScope (via SketchUp Pro integration).
Airphrame currently best suits EPC firms developing projects where survey measurements are critical, such as large, complex buildings, greenfields or brownfields. The company has also started to work with businesses that can process large amounts of imagery and 3-D data, which designers can use for generating system designs and shade analyses in proprietary or commercial solar proposal and sales platforms.
Airphrame / 415.340.2147 / airphrame.com
Aurora Solar Depending on the package purchased, solar companies can use Aurora as a sales-only tool or as an integrated sales and engineering platform. Where LIDAR data are not available, the platform can convert 2-D images into 3-D models. These 3-D data enable sophisticated shading and performance analyses and provide compelling graphics for sales proposals. Users with access to the engineering package can generate single-line diagrams exportable to ArcGIS, AutoCAD, SketchUp or Visio. This version of the software also verifies NEC compliance and autogenerates a bill of materials and a detailed cost breakdown.
Aurora is ideal for companies developing residential and small commercial solar projects. Over the last year, the company has integrated features for developers of larger-scale commercial and industrial projects. The platform is now capable of supporting and optimizing dual-tilt array designs and arrays on curved surfaces. Though some financers may ask for additional PVSyst models to meet underwriting requirements, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has verified that Aurora’s remote shading results are statistically equivalent to on-site measurements.
Aurora Solar / aurorasolar.com
Energy Toolbase Energy Toolbase originally developed its software platform for commercial energy storage developers. It can also model and optimize customer savings for PV systems or solar-plus-storage systems based on different utility tariff options. Users can import raw interval meter data for customers of participating utilities via Green Button. Energy Toolbase can then use these data to compare different scenarios, such as tiered or time-of-use rate structures, with or without solar. The platform allows users to model demand reductions for PV or solar-plus-storage systems. It also supports virtual net energy metering (NEM) and NEM aggregation, and can model savings for California customers subject to NEM 2.0.
In addition to serving energy storage developers, Energy Toolbase ideally suits installation companies that want to help customers analyze potential utility tariff changes, identify optimal system designs and quickly generate customer-friendly proposals. Utility tariffs and net metering policies are shifting all across the country. Companies that understand how to navigate and work within this changing landscape can help customers become more energy literate and ensure that they get the most value out of a right-sized solar energy system.
Energy Toolbase / 866.303.7786 / energytoolbase.com
HelioScope Folsom Labs developed the core model in HelioScope as a means of evaluating and analyzing new PV system technologies such as dc-to-dc converters, which requires a component-based performance model. The platform automates and expedites presales design activities such as comparing array and BOS layouts for roof- or ground-mounted PV systems. This allows users to quickly evaluate potential sites and system design options. For existing commercial rooftops or flat land areas, users can access Google Earth imagery within HelioScope or import their own aerial images. Integration with SketchUp Pro is required for users to analyze new construction, multi-elevation roof planes, 3-D models, point clouds or terrain maps. Because of its component-based performance model, HelioScope is capable of analyzing shade or voltage drop with component-level granularity.
HelioScope is a good fit for anyone who needs to quickly assess potential sites for solar, including project originators, sales support staff, engineers and investors. While the platform primarily addresses presales processes, Folsom Labs recently introduced the ability to export design data for an electrical line diagram. The company is currently developing a network of interoperable software products, including a proposal-generation module, to create a more seamless end-to-end experience. Though some financers ask for additional PVSyst modeling to meet their underwriting requirements, the independent engineering firm DNV GL (formerly BEW Engineering) has validated HelioScope’s performance model.
Folsom Labs / helioscope.folsomlabs.com
PVBid PVBid brings machine learning and real-time project cost feedback to the process of structuring bids for commercial-scale solar projects. Its premise is that solar installation companies can improve bidding accuracy and operational effectiveness by learning about the actual costs incurred in the field and how these differ from estimating assumptions. The platform tracks and analyzes task-level construction cost data via integration with accounting tools. This feedback loop allows the platform to display suggestions for users putting together a bid.
PVBid is currently accepting beta customers. The company designed its platform to cut across work processes, such as bid development, project management, construction and accounting, and provide actionable feedback loops. Its target customers are EPC firms and larger solar installation companies looking to develop more-accurate and competitive bids.
PVBid / 510.473.7246 / pvbid.com
PVComplete PVComplete is a toolbar extension for AutoCAD (the full version), a computer-aided drafting platform that solar companies working in commercial and industrial applications widely use. The platform helps expedite project engineering by automating or streamlining activities such as module and BOS placement, string sizing and shade analysis. It also allows users to quickly run design optimization and other what-if scenarios. Through recent work with the SunShot Catalyst program, PVComplete has developed a web front end called PVSketch that allows execution of quick sales layouts, which users can later import into PVComplete’s flagship product during the project engineering phase.
PVComplete targets draftspersons and engineers at EPC firms that specialize in commercial, industrial and larger-scale projects. A number of EPC firms and large residential solar companies have had to build tools similar to PVComplete in-house. PVComplete brings this functionality to the wider marketplace for smaller solar developers.
PVComplete / pvcomplete.com
SolarDesignTool SolarDesignTool is cloud-based software that automates many of the routine activities involved in preparing residential permit packages. Platform features include array layout, string sizing for multi-MPPT inverters, voltage drop calculation and basic structural design verification. Users can import aerial imagery or wireframes (skeletal line renderings of a 3-D roof) from companies such as EagleView Technologies or Rooforders. SolarDesignTool exports include a long list of elements necessary for solar permit packages: a single-line diagram, a bill of materials, multiple site plan options, placards and a labels sheet, a structural report for each roof face and subarray, a wire schedule, an abbreviated conductor and conduit schedule, and a long-form wire and conduit report.
SolarDesignTool best fits companies in the residential market that would use it to expedite the process of generating complete engineering plan sets. The most appropriate users of this tool are personnel with at least an intermediate understanding of project design principles.
SolarDesignTool / get.solardesigntool.com
Solar Site Design Solar Site Design takes a relatively low-tech approach to customer acquisition. The platform empowers independent service professionals—tradespeople, contractors, home automation experts, maintenance providers and so on—to originate residential or commercial solar projects as an adjunct to their existing businesses. Solar Site Design takes users through a simple site survey process, and then delivers this survey report to manufacturers, suppliers, engineering firms or finance companies that sign up to receive leads within the service territory. The company provides training for anyone who signs up to serve as a project originator.
Solar Site Design serves the needs of a wide variety of stakeholders. Project originators receive a commission for every lead that converts to a sale, while fulfillment partners get access to qualified leads. Solar Site Design also creates white-label origination programs for solar installation companies and EPC firms.
Solar Site Design / 877.286.1751 / solarsitedesign.com
SolView SolView has developed a suite of software around its computer vision and image analysis capabilities. The company’s Virtual Canvasser, for example, is a semi-automated solar potential assessment and lead qualification tool to help solar companies target residential customers across large areas such as neighborhoods, towns or zip codes. The platform extracts information from aerial imagery, including rooftop contours and orientations, and integrates these data with weather information, financial databases, utility rates and incentives. After Virtual Canvasser finishes its analysis, users can view the results online and sort them according to different parameters. Lead times for neighborhood-level or larger batch analyses are around 30 days.
SolView best serves residential solar installation companies looking to streamline customer acquisition and improve operational efficiency. The platform allows companies to prepare targeted proposals for best-qualified homes and homeowners. Be aware that SolView’s module placement algorithm fills all available roof areas, regardless of the feasibility or advisability of the module configuration.
SolView / solview.com
The Integration Challenge
While many tools exist to serve the construction industry, they do not apply directly to the high-volume, high-velocity needs of the smaller-scale distributed solar industry. As a result, residential solar companies have had to custom-develop many of the IT solutions they need, either in-house or using outside firms. Today’s market leaders have a clear head start on this, but their tools and processes are by no means perfect.
In some cases, the increased administrative burden associated with custom-built IT solutions may even negate the value of adopting the software. If company complexity requires increasing the number of IT systems and specialized staff to integrate and maintain those systems, companies should ask whether there is value—and a path to profitability—in implementing these systems.
Barry Cinnamon, the chief executive officer of Cinnamon Solar and Spice Solar, can attest to the reality of these challenges. Today, Cinnamon runs his small residential installation company near San Jose, California, with simple software and minimal automation. He uses a Microsoft Excel–based spreadsheet to put together quotes, a purpose-built layout tool specific to Spice Solar products and a basic CRM tool. Previously, Cinnamon was the chief executive officer of Akeena Solar, the first national-scale solar installation company. When he interviewed me on his “Solar Energy Show” podcast in April 2015, Cinnamon noted that as Akeena grew, the business became more complex and expensive to operate. Some of the attempts to use software and training to automate routine activities cost the company more money than they saved in the long run, in part because AHJs frequently changed local installation and permitting requirements.
SOFTWARE ADOPTION EVALUATION
I recommend that solar companies employ the following steps and best practices when evaluating software platforms for possible adoption.
1. Develop realistic expectations about what software can and cannot do. Solar is an energy business, and the energy business is rife with policies and regulations. Software will not streamline these policy and regulatory frameworks. While some software platforms may help your company keep track of AHJ requirements, someone must maintain these databases, which may require frequent updates.
2. Streamline your current process as much as possible. It is critical that solar companies first seek to understand the ideal experience from the perspective of the customer. Companies then need to align their human resources and processes to serve that goal. Only after completing this work can companies implement the automations most appropriate to support that process and experience.
3. Make sure you have the right people in the right roles. Just as it is important to align your work processes, you need to make sure you have the right employees in the right roles. After streamlining your processes, you may find that you have too many people covering one task and not enough dedicated to another. You may have created a new role or eliminated an old one. Be kind in this process. This is best undertaken as a bottom-up initiative where employees are actively engaged in the process of envisioning the best ways to serve customers. This way they will see themselves fitting into these new roles rather than feeling subject to a judgment imposed from above. In many cases, superstar employees will seize the opportunity to jockey passionately for a role they have always dreamed of and are likely to excel at.
4. Evaluate remaining employee and customer pain points. Once business owners have the right processes and people in place, they can examine the remaining customer and employee pain points. This analysis will provide insight about how best to incorporate software or process automation. If you skip straight to this step without laying the groundwork in steps 1–3, you run many risks. Your results may not stick, you may not achieve the desired results, and you could wind up overpaying for IT services or hardware.
5. Evaluate the costs versus the benefits of software adoption. As an example, assume that a solar installation company can reduce the sales price of a typical residential PV system by $450 if it makes a $5,000 investment in software tools and datasets. To amortize that investment, the company will need to increase its volume of customers. However, there may be additional business costs associated with serving more customers. The company might need to hire more office staff, add another installation crew and buy another truck. Further, there may be recurring costs associated with the software and datasets, including monthly fees for software-as-subscription services and access fees for on-demand imagery or electrical interval data. While some might argue that the initial investment will allow the installation company to win more business, others might caution that what follows is a compounding loss to the installer. After all, how long can a company operate at a loss to win projects before it goes out of business?
6. Create an implementation plan. Many IT implementations fail because they were not well planned and executed. Just as business-process changes require planning, documentation and personnel training, so does software implementation. Your implementation plan should include a calendar for adoption, and it should address employee training, communications, documentation and support services. Imple-mentations can go awry because people, generally speaking, do not like change. Involving employees early in the process—identifying pain points, suggesting improvements and selecting software—is a good way to help them embrace change.
7. Set goals. If you have followed steps 1–6, you should be able to set specific goals and metrics to evaluate the software implementation. Perhaps you want to see a 20% reduction in lost customer project files or convert 30% more leads to sales. If you set realistic and tangible goals, you can periodically evaluate your progress to see if you are on track to meet them. If not, you may want to reconsider using the platform. Just be sure to give your organization adequate adjustment time, as it takes a month or two for any change in process or software to become the new status quo.
Pamela Cargill / Chaolysti / Alameda, CA / chaolysti.com