Helioscope Review

Helioscope is a web based solar design software that is designed to bring accuracy and reliability to solar estimation and energy simulation. Folsom Labs, founded by Paul Grana in 2012 and based in San Francisco, is intent on making solar photovoltaic estimation and simulation effortless yet accurate at the same time. No easy task, considering the multitude of factors, mechanical, electrical and environmental that influence the simulation of a solar photovoltaic system.

Folsom Labs

Folsom Labs’ Helioscope is pitted against PVsyst a comparison that they readily make in several of their own communications. At Helioscope, they believe that the calculations and formulae that form the basis of solar estimation and energy simulation are universal, providing a detailed mathematical formulae and calculation document that can be examined by all. While, Helioscope do not claim proprietary rights to the simulation methodology, they do believe in their method of applying these calculations and in their platform’s ability to simulate accurate results.

Solar Photovoltaic Estimation

The current needs of solar photovoltaic estimation, energy simulation and proposals software can be quantified as follows;

1. Simplicity

In other words, the ease with which the tool can be used. Essentially, the designers getting the user interface and user experience just right.

2. Agnostic

Each device and operating system brings with it their own benefits and limitations, creating a tool that can be used across all these devices is a great feature.

3. Learnability

The ability of the user to self learn or be quickly trained is vital to an organizations’ adoption of the platform and hiring of resources.

4. Accuracy

The accuracy of the results is the raison d’être for solar photovoltaic estimation and energy simulation software and there will be no compromise on this by any respectable solar developer and solar installer.

5. Bankability

The financial commitment for a solar project is always a carefully considered action irrespective of the size. At current costs, installing solar is an upfront financial investment with the expectation of a profitable return on investment. The estimated solar PV system delivering on the simulated energy yield targets is non-negotiable; ensuring technical targets are met, and therefore, financial expectations are satisfied.

Helioscope

The overarching mission of having a pv design tool is accelerating growth and development of solar PV projects and its beneficial contribution to energy transformation to renewable sources. Helioscope adds impetus to this already growing solar juggernaut by ensuring that every solar developer and installer have a tool that is in their own words, bankable. It could be argued that Helioscope is the preferred tool for the newer generation of solar designers who are more internet savvy and are comfortable with a web based tool. Helioscope has been designed with this user in mind and yet has not compromised on a solar photovoltaic estimation and energy simulation tool’s need for accuracy and bankability.

1. Configuration

Helioscope configuration of profiles are open and flexible to suit the operational needs of a solar developer or solar installer. Whether you are looking for a tool that is applying a standard solution to several locations, creating custom solar designs for each location or modeling several permutations & combinations for optimal estimation; Helioscope allows to customize the toolset to your needs.

Helioscope default profiles for residential, commercial, carport and ground mount are available. These Helioscope default profiles can be fine tuned to suit the needs of the project types or region by setting the common factors as a default. Removing the need for these profiles to be created for every project. These default settings, apply to mechanical, electrical, environmental, solar irradiance and regulatory aspects of the project. This method of having default settings takes the need for repeated settings out of the process and allows the sales executive or engineer to consider the site specific modifications.

2. Project

Creating a project in Helioscope starts with the name and address with the address determining the location of the project. Although not explicitly stated, the address field will accept geographic longitude and latitude coordinates. The map view to the right of the fields will centre on the address or coordinates. You can set a default profile to use which is preloaded, choose from customized profiles created by you or from Helioscope default profiles. Helioscope provides default profiles for residential, commercial, carport and ground-mount projects; each of which can be further customized to suit specific requirements in profile settings

3. Estimation

Helioscope has a process flow that has a logical flow to the solar estimation and energy simulation. Helioscope supporting documentation, Modeling 101, provides the science behind the process in considerable detail. Reading this documentation allows for the designer to be better informed in the estimation of solar energy yield and the Helioscope modeling methodology. Throughout the estimation process each additional parameter or change is reflected immediately in the simulation, this makes it an exploratory process.

4. Map

The map is the starting point of the layout tools. Helioscope by default has Google, Bing and Google Street Map (where available). This provides standard satellite imagery from Google or Bing, aerial drone imagery can be used with the integration of NearMap or files from Pictometry. Your own images, line diagrams or drone imagery can also be provided as the starting point.

5. Mechanical

The layout of arrays starts with marking out the roof or installation location. Helioscope can fill in the panels based on the default settings immediately. Azimuth is set as default to South or North based on the location of the site relative to the equator. The Azimuth for the arrays can be set to an edge of the field segment with a few clicks. If the default is acceptable you can move to the next step, else, you can choose an alternative module from the list; adjust the tilt, inter-row spacing, racking specifications and height of the array from the ground (in the case of roof installations).

6. Keepout

Objects and obstructions that will preclude installation of solar modules or effect their generation capacity can be marked. The exact shape & height of keepouts can be specified based on the image available and factors known to the designer such as setbacks & walkways can be included. The shading influences of keepouts and obstructions, including neighboring buildings and trees can be assessed. Modules can be automatically removed in Helioscope based on time of the year shading factors or individual module shading cut-off percentages.

7. Electrical

The default inverter is preloaded, the number of inverters and the string sizing is completed based on the number of panels determined by the software factoring the mechanical and keepout parameters. The electrical equipment can include DC optimizers, combiner boxes and cable gauge specifications. Factors such as inverter efficiency, MPPTs, voltage drops and resistance losses on cabling homeruns are considered in the electrical estimation. The default can be tweaked by choosing an alternative inverter, changing the DC-AC ratio, string sizing and various factors. The entire electrical estimation can be exported as a single line diagram that is dynamically calculated based on the electrical parameters.

8. Report & Simulation

The final Helioscope report considers all the Mechanical, Electrical and Condition Sets (including custom or default settings for soiling, snow and TMY Weather Data) to create an 8760 energy model for each individual module. Helioscope aggregates this to the string, inverter and system level 8760 energy model to create the full report and energy simulation of the solar project. This entire simulation process is completed in a matter of minutes.

The resulting Helioscope report provides a loss tree and source of losses torus chart that allows for a quick view of the major losses. This is convenient, enabling returning to the problem area and minimize the losses stemming from it. For example, changing an inverter capacity or type can improve the inverter losses or increasing cable gauge can reduce resistance losses.

Proposals Beta

Helioscope team has launched a private beta for sales & financial proposals which considers the cost of the components, the utility rates, state & federal incentives and financing options. This will extend Helioscope features beyond a solar estimation tool and bring it into the sales proposal category.

Integrations

Helioscope provides the ability to integrate with, import from and export to several peripheral service providers such as;

  • Solar GIS
  • NearMap
  • Energy ToolBase
  • Homer
  • UniRack
  • Adobe DocuSign
  • Mosaic

to name but a few to improve the primary solar modeling capabilities.

Customer Reviews

Customer reviews are laudatory with particular emphasis on the ease of use and the ability of the customers to quickly train engineers and sales executives to estimate solar and run energy simulations as the greatest benefit. Some customers have reduced their estimation times by a factor of 10.

Conclusion

Helioscope has achieved what Paul Grana set out to do, make a platform that creates bankable designs of solar projects. The industry at large would need to acknowledge that going forward, the global acceptance of PVsyst reports is being challenged. Perhaps, the solar industry is hesitant to admit that estimation and simulation accuracy for solar projects can be achieved so easily, but we would be remiss not to do so. Helioscope is the next evolutionary step to simulate solar projects and provide bankable documentation and shading analysis. The fact that, Helioscope is a cloud based tool which is device agnostic and integrates with several peripheral data & service providers; is a stunning example of what the future holds for solar photovoltaic design, estimation and simulation.