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Current Software Landscape and Opportunities in Photovoltaic (Solar Power) Business

Current Software Landscape and Opportunities in Photovoltaic (Solar Power) Business

Saloni Kumar | July 11, 2019

Photovoltaics (PV) is a leading vertical in the renewable energy industry along with hydropower, wind, bioenergy, geothermal, and marine energy. As per an International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) report, renewable energy industry accounts for one-third of the global energy production. At the end of 2018, global solar energy capacity increased by 24% with an installed capacity of 486 GW (IRENA renewable capacity statistics 2019). There is an opportunity to scale business and improve end-user experience with the help of integrated software solutions. This article highlights major software components of the PV business, challenges in the US market, and how integrated software can help in the growth of businesses.

What is Photovoltaics (PV)
Photovoltaics is a technology to generate electricity from solar energy with the use of an electrical device that converts sunlight directly into electricity. This process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage) is called the photovoltaic effect. This electricity can be used to power equipment(s) or recharge a battery.

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Major Software Components in the PV Business
In addition to the standard software required to run any business like supply-chain management, customer relationship management, catalog and pricing management, content management, etc., there are some niche software used in the PV business. These software cater to the following business requirements:

  • Simulation of Solar Energy Production

  • Solar Roof Design

  • Lead Generation

  • Proposal Creation

  • Solar Financing

  • Solar Project Management

  • Monitoring of Solar System Performance

  • Simulation of Solar Energy Production
    Before the installation starts on a given residential, commercial, non-profit, or industrial project, it is important to simulate the solar energy production for that location to check whether the desired power output will be generated after installation or not. Solar energy production depends upon various factors like panel quality, number of direct sunlight hours per day, percentage of shading, the direction in which solar panels are installed with respect to sunlight, etc.

    National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a national laboratory of US Department of Energy releases updated repository of weather files for the Americas, the Indian Sub-Continent, and some parts of Central Asia. NREL provides free simulator (PVWatts calculator) for solar energy production calculation with open source developers API. It is integrated with Google geocode API to furnish weather data at latitude and longitude level. PVWatts API can be integrated with the solar installer’s web application.

  • Solar Roof Design
    Before conducting the site survey, the Energy Consultant (EC) can visualize the actual project roof, its dimension, roof type (flat, tilted, shingles, etc.), and available space on the roof for installation with the help of solar roof design tool. One of the prerequisites to build such tools is to have an integration with Google Map satellite API that provides the actual dimension of any roof from point A to B. The EC can draw roof layout polygons, and the tool arranges solar panels into that based on the area of roof polygon, and panel dimension. One can also exclude specific areas on the roof (keep-out area) in the tool for each roof type mandated by the government for safety operations like firefighting. Remote modeling of building heights, roof slopes, and tree heights around the solar roof can be done with the use of LiDAR (Light detection and ranging), a 3D mapping remote sensing technology.

  • Lead Generation
    There are multiple web applications which enable end-users to find out the rough quotation of solar production and pass on the customer lead to solar companies for a fee. The scope of such applications is currently limited, as it only solves one part of the whole customer requirement.

  • Proposal Creation
    Solar installers and freelance consultants use proposal creation tools to generate a proposal for a residential or commercial customer. Proposal generation requires entering detailed information, including primary applicants and co-applicants, associated utility company, site condition, electric panel, and solar assembly. Based on the given information, the tool computes installed system price.

  • Solar Financing
    Like any other type of financing, credit underwriting is the first step in processing the loan for solar projects. Credit bureau APIs are available for automated credit underwriting of loan applicants. They provide loan applicants credit score to solar companies and lenders.

    There are four types of payment plans in solar financing; capital lease, operating lease, finance, and PPA (Power Purchase Agreement). Based on the credit score, down payment, federal tax credit, and project type (residential, commercial, non-profit, and industrial), the tool calculates payment instalments for a given number of years.

  • Solar Project Management
    Many solar installers use a combination of MS Excel, MS Project, and generic project management tools and CRM platforms to manage different phases of a project. They also maintain physical documents for each project because of unavailability of online document management system in their environment.

  • Monitoring of Solar System Performance
    After the installation of solar panels, their performance needs to be monitored in real-time by solar maintenance teams, and end-users. In case the power output is less than expected, it needs to be tracked at panel/ module or sub-module level to expedite the repair work.

Need for an Integrated Software Solution
At present, most of the specialized PV software exist as standalone systems and do not support the end-to-end user journey of a typical solar customer.

  • There is a need for cloud-based software platform, which cuts across different solar business functions, and allows various stakeholders to interact and execute business tasks effectively.

  • There is a great opportunity to streamline and automate the processes at every step of solar installation.

Let’s look at a few examples of areas that can benefit from an integrated solution:

  • In most cases, proposal creation is an assisted process where the sales associate explains the installation process, benefits, expected savings to the customer, and gets relevant information from her to create the proposal. There is an opportunity to build self-service capabilities for the end user to create her own proposal and e-sign the solar agreement. The available SaaS-based proposal creation tools for business users are not as configurable as required by the businesses. Some solar installers build in-house applications to fit their custom requirements. However, these applications are not very user-friendly, and companies have to spend much time in training employees and dealers to use these applications.

  • The turnaround time for solar projects is around 2-3 months from beginning to commissioning the PV system due to various dependencies and lack of automated business processes. Even a 5 KW system installation can have 50-odd steps involving internal departments, judicial agencies, loan companies, house owner association (HOA), and customer. It is a document-intensive process where various documents (solar agreement, extended warranty, permitting documents, before-and-after site photographs, approved concept designs, loan approval, etc.) are still maintained in paper forms. Many solar installers are using manual or generic project management tools to manage their projects. There is a need for custom-built project management platform keeping the solar business in mind. This will streamline the process and has the potential to reduce the turnaround time by half.

  • Other recurring, and often mismanaged, task is allocation/tracking of site surveyors, site engineers, technicians and physical resources (vehicles and toolboxes for technicians). Customized resource management and scheduling software have to be integrated with solar project management software to align project processes and allocated resources tightly.

  • Solar finance management is a crucial business function to implement solar projects, as the average price of solar installation in US residential projects is around $25,000. At present, there are independent solar finance management platforms that provide payment estimator tools and loans. There is a need to integrate interactive payment estimator tools within solar installer platform where both end user and PV sales staff can compare different type of plans and price break-up. This way, the user can seamlessly move to the next step of generating solar installation agreement and e-signing it.

Opportunities to Bridge Gaps in Business User Experience

  • Creating a single pane of glass to integrate information from different applications and environment
    An integrated platform can encompass features and functionalities for all stakeholders in the PV business. A business user can access internally built features and external products integrated through APIs on this unified platform.

  • Replacing paper filing of documents with an online document management system
    Apart from reducing the cumbersome manual effort of maintaining paper filing and associated risks, an integrated system will help all business users to easily save and locate any required document online and collaborate with specific team members in case of any gaps. It will also include apps for technicians to easily upload site photographs to the relevant project.

  • Mobile-friendly project tracking & collaboration tool and project automation tools
    As solar project management is a tedious process, a responsive project tracking and collaboration tool will make business users’ life easy. Project automation can take care of menial tasks and help in streamlining the process.

User journey of a PV sales staff and sales admin after the integration of new software is depicted below:
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Opportunities to Bridge Gaps in End User Experience
An integrated solution can address some major pain points from an end user perspective. Giving power back to the end-user helps in reengineering business processes and achieving organizational goals.

  • Self-served proposal creation tool with step-by-step guided instructions and live support

  • Automated finance plan comparison and solar loan application process

  • Real-time tracking of project progress and post-installation maintenance request on a mobile device

The end-user storyboard below depicts how the customer journey of a residential PV end user can be enhanced with the above-mentioned features.

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As the solar energy industry continues to grow, businesses need to invest in technology and, more importantly, focus on integrating disparate systems and enhancing user experience to speed-up adoption.

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