The use of the word “Open” as a prefix to the name of a software product creates a vision of a user-developer built product that has a passionate community of supporters and collaborators dedicating their time and effort to build a solution that is robust and inclusive. The various versions and forks would lead to Github and Reddit forums filled with commentary and community support. The fact that this can be applicable to the solar industry is unsurprising and encouraging.
OpenSolar is a cloud based solar design software that is designed for solar professionals to be a white label solar design and sales toolkit that is “Free” to use. The quotation marks are intentional which will become clearer as we delve into the details. The “Open” in the name does seem to be largely a misnomer given our expectations of a versatile tool for installers. “You may be wondering how we can afford to make it free.” by providing bespoke software development services to solar OEMs, battery OEMs and solar financial service providers.
The about us description includes an introduction featuring Greta Thunberg and commits to the promotion of solar as the energy source of the future. Mitigating climate change by addressing the need for a reliable platform to better serve the solar industry is the mission. A solar sales software platform that will be a valuable tool for any solar installer in the world seeking to create an effective customer journey, is exactly what the founders are hoping to accomplish. They have done this before to great acclaim with Sungevity and it certainly looks like they have done it again.
The good and the acceptable
It is natural human behavior to be more accepting when something is free. This does not mean that there is a lack in quality, far from it; OpenSolar is a good design tool that can be depended on by installers to deliver great sales proposals. Here are a few things that you need to consider
- It is a great CRM tool with integrations from OEMs and service providers that make it versatile
- Installers can bank on it for the early stages of sales negotiation and build upon the design that they have created
- There is immense amount of customization options that allows you to mould the software platform to your solar installation company’s specific requirements
- Installers can design customers’ solar system in real time online while they view it simultaneously
- The many integrations and APIs are not free, more often than not they lead to service providers who charge a fee or a subscription for the product
- The accuracy of the solar proposal that is created is entirely dependent on the data and the assumptions that were used and can be prone to errors
- The design process is sometimes slowed down by the simultaneous calculation that happens during solar design
Solar Design Software, what to look for?
Choosing any software for your business is going to define the business process in itself. Choosing the wrong software does not just affect installers in terms of price but also the additional consequence of having to change from one business process to the other. In choosing a tool that is right, you do need to keep in mind a few important points;
- Ease of use is an important factor because the speed with which you are able to deliver your solar proposals is based on how simple it is to use the sales tool
- The application for which the platform’s output is required the most in your business operations; investment, solar design, energy modeling, sales proposals or finalization of contract
- Interoperability of the solar platform with other applications, data providers, report outputs and APIs
- Acceptance of the validity of the generated simulation or estimation by customers and industry peers
- Customizability of the software and the ease with which employees can self learn or be trained to use the tool
Features & Benefits
The company ethos seems to be a focus on providing the tool for quick solar proposals to the end customer. In principle this seems to be a simple enough endeavor, however, in execution this requires a lot of customization of the settings. So while the first thing you see when you login to the main page is Projects we really should be starting in Control. Creating the underlying data upon which the design is built would seem to be vital for the ease of operation.
To begin with there is a handy quick start guide which illustrates a 5 step process on creating the fundamentals. The 5 steps are;
- Business Info
- System Pricing
- Payment Options
- Setbacks and Design Settings
- Proposal Template
All the sections will be familiar to any seasoned solar professional and are simple to understand, it will require some time spent in entering the data. When you create an account with the country as Australia, it is created with a few demo projects preloaded and some of the settings already created.
OpenSolar is a white label platform for solar design and solar sales, therefore, the business details are required to be filled in. The details required are simple, fill in details such as phone number, email, website, physical address, country and colour highlight suitable to your corporate colours. And, finally fill in an about us section and upload your logo to complete the process.
Installers can add team members and assign appropriate access rights. Non-admin team members will not have access to the control page.
The business process section allows you to create the steps to follow for every customer. The business process is pre-configured and is completely editable, while this does look like a simple to do list this is part of the customer journey that the founders are known for.
Preconfigured project tags are available for most common customer requirements and circumstances. Settings pertinent to outgoing emails, project access control and general preferences can also be specified.
Pricing & Payments
Pricing methodology for the solar systems is broadly categorised by four methods;
- Price Per Watt – The price is specified by the total Watt Peak (Wp) DC capacity of the solar and the kilowatt hour kWh capacity of the battery storage. The platform calculates the price by the system design.
- Markup Percentage – A mark up percentage is a simple markup over the cost of good sold (COGS) that has been specified for components that have been applied to the solar design.
- Price Per Watt by Size – Price per watt by size follows the same principle as the price per watt based on Wp with the additional feature of allowing you to have different price per watt based on range of system kWp size. This is valuable addition because the price per watt trends downwards for higher kWp and for project design that considers multiple system installations as a bulk purchase
- Fixed Price – Allows to propose a fixed price irrespective of the capacity. This sounds strange at first but if we are looking at projects with a standardised system design. In our opinion this pricing methodology should allow for a standardised design to be specified for the specific fixed price.
Payment options can also be pre-configured and options include;
- PPA (Beta)
- Regular Payment
- Lease (Beta)
Each type has further configurability to conditions specific to the regulatory and tax requirements of the solar installers’ location. There can be multiple versions of each type of payment option allowing for different customisations and regions to be included in the platform. The PPA and Lease in beta is a reflection of what we believe to be evidence of the fact that the sales tools and design options are better suited for residential solar installers. In practical terms PPA is never applied to residential requirements and Lease often doesn’t meet the customers’ returns expectations.
Cost of shipping, racking, BOS, labour, allocations from sales & design cost, project management and permitting can be allocated per System, per Panel or per Watt. This section may be overwhelming at initial stages but for a running company their costing methodology can be accurately replicated. Solar installers who allow their customer to customise the design based on the user requirement would benefit from an activity based costing methodology that allows them to allocate various cost heads to each system cost.
Design & Hardware
Each component can be chosen from the database and created to be available for design. This allows the user to choose preferred products and customise specifications if the database details differs from the product available to them. The COGS of the component can be set, which will then be used when markup percentage pricing method is used and a price adjustment can be added if required to fine tune the per watt price. The price adjustment is a useful feature with unique module types such as bi-facial or frameless which usually have an additional cost over standard modules.
Hardware list includes;
- Other Components – Mounting Systems, Monitoring, Weather Stations, Applications and Subscriptions
Predefined setbacks applicable to particular roof features such as, gutters, rakes and skylights in addition to standard tilt for racks based on slopes can be set. Simulation tool settings allows the period, in years, for which the generation values is calculated and the applicable inflation and discount rates that are considered. The inverter sizing can be automatic based as a default choice or can be set to manual. We will revisit the subject of inverter design automation when we are addressing system design.
The purchase experience allows the user to create and manage several proposal templates, contract templates and check out experience. There is also a section for uploading case studies that can be included in the proposal. The user is able to share with the customer a webpage dedicated to their requirement. This allows for direct interaction between the sales staff and the customer. Once again driving the value of a customer journey that allows both sales staff and customer to be literally on the same page.
The checkout and online payment made possible by an integration with Stripe creates a customer experience rarely seen on such a platform. This experience is similar to other retail shopping or customer experiences that residential customers have with similar purchase values. This is another reason it would seem that the platform is built for solar installers providing solutions to customers in the residential solar market.
Utility tariffs are preloaded on a database, user generated tariffs can be added to the database allowing others to benefit from it. Incentive schemes and government grants can also be included.
Integration with specific service providers for aerial imagery, financial platforms, energy usage data and chat support is possible. These integrations done through APIs require a subscription to or be a customer of the service provider.
In general, specifying the most used products and the simulation tool allows for a quick configuration at the proposal stage and solar professionals will appreciate the customisability. However, any incorrect assumption or erroneous entry will cause the solar proposal to be unappealing to the customer. For this reason, even if the design tool is free, it will need an administrator who is aware of the various specifications that have been put in and ensure that the resulting solar proposal is an accurate reflection of the underlying business economics of the installer. In other words, an IT professional will need to be tasked with configuring and maintaining the platform and work with installers, sales and purchase departments to get the best results from the platform.
The creation of any new project begins with the address and type of project; residential or commercial. The target users are solar installers based in US, Australia, New Zealand or Canada; the platform performs better when used for projects in these locations. The platform underperforms in other countries and remote locations. This being the case, the dependance on address is understandable for these locations. For those other uses where an address becomes difficult to find, map coordinates would be the way to go. This requires finding the field for map coordinates which are available inexplicably through a link called Show Address Detail and then at the bottom of address details.
We can provide the name, email and phone number of the contact or assign an existing contact. We can assign a team member to lead the sales process for the customer, set a priority level and set appropriate tags from our pre-configured list.
Electricity usage values can be set to default in which case the best known average consumption for residential or commercial project type for that location is adopted. If data is available the electricity usage can be put in as follows;
- Estimate (Low/Medium/High)
- kWh values (Daily/Monthly/Quarterly/Annual)
- Electricity Bills (Monthly/Quarterly/Annual)
- Hourly Interval
The electricity consumption simulation is capable of accepting a few of the values and extrapolating an estimate based on these figures. Further inputs such as consumption curve for weekday and weekend based on evening peaks, double peaks or business hours and weekend consumption compared to weekday consumption; help create a realistic approximation of the electricity consumption. Hourly interval data if available can be used as well, although the implementation of it seemed a bit awkward. You are required to format a spreadsheet in a particular manner and then copy and paste the figures into the hourly demand field. The field is tagged 8760kW CSV and we would have preferred the option to upload a file. There is also the possibility of using Utility API which will allow for consumer data to be requested and the customer will provide approval for the data to be released to the designers.
We can dive straight into designing the system or we can view the details. There is a fair bit of details here mostly relevant to the phase after the sale to the customer has been completed.
Procurement is an interesting aspect of this section. For Australian locations there is the possibility for API integration with Solar Outlet who are B2B distributors of solar components. The integration allows for a simple ordering methodology for sold systems. Since the button can only be activated based on the customer having bought the system it is a very convenient option. From a business management perspective this is an excellent example of reducing bottlenecks by preparing a standardised business process and empowering the user to take ownership of the customer journey. The customer has visibility on the project timeline and the installation and permitting requirements, including requiring approval from the customer where applicable.
The project page continues to be the reference page through out the customers interaction with the company. This allows the user to have a single dashboard for all the relevant documents applicable to the project including previous versions.
You are able to generate documents such as Owner’s Manual, Installation Instructions and Energy Yield Report as well upload related documentation such as permitting and single line diagrams created elsewhere.
The design section is visually engaging allowing the users to design in the presence of customers thereby involving them in the process. The details of the imagery is dependant on the resource. Map data from Google, Bing, and OpenStreetMap as well as other less known service providers with details specific to the particular location are used. NearMap a service provider of aerial imagery is integrated through API. Installers have an option to login with a NearMap account and NearMap have a page dedicated to OpenSolar in their solar application specific promotion. Subscribers of NearMap can work with higher quality of 3D aerial imagery.
The “solartouch” design technology looks great in the demonstrations but in practice was not as intuitive as it looks. Any tool requires a certain amount of practice to get familiar with it but we suspect this has a little bit to do with the computing power. Both the browser based studio and app based studio performed better in new devices than older devices. This will be because of the underlying mapping and rendering technology that requires ample processing power.
Once the panels have been placed the default panel is preloaded and the capacity calculated. You do have the ability to switch to the preconfigured panels or if required dive into the database and retrieve a new set of panels. Each panel group can be edited, more adjacent modules can be added or modules removed with a click or tap. The inter panel and row spacing of the array can be preconfigured which makes the designers’ work a lot easier. Trees and other obstructions can be drawn in and a roof can be defined but this method does not seem to yield best results. It is best to simply place the solar modules and then align them to the roof as appropriate.
The fine tuning of the panel placement requires toggling buttons to move and align which is not well thought out. Setting of the azimuth once the panel has been placed rotates it around an axis of the first point of the solartouch operation. If one where to mark out a roof the default azimuth is 180 after which filling the roof aligns the panel incorrectly to the roof shape. Changing the azimuth leads to the entire array pivoting around the axis and away from the demarcated roof. This part of the design technology was not comfortable and often it was easier to delete the array and start over again.
Shading data does not seem to be reliable and there certainly aren’t methods available to create or simulate neighbouring structures as shading. The ability to add trees is certainly meant to simulate shading but in one instance despite the tree being located right next to the array it had not shading losses. Considering that pitched roofs are de rigueur in the US and Australia any in accuracy in the annual incident irradiance on the array will have significant errors. The method of calculation is based on PV Watts 6 or System Advisor Model. There is no option to import TMY data from other sources either, which is very disappointing.
Inverter & Battery
Inverter sizing can be done automatically, if a default is set it would use the default and complete the calculation allocate the number of inverters and allocate MPPT and String the panels as well. You could also choose the inverter and then allow the MPPT and String to be allocated automatically. This can be done manually as well but will require understanding of the stringing principles and MPPT available for the particular model of inverter. This data is not available while doing the design but there are alerts that indicated inverters being oversized or module voltages being high after the design is completed. If you are using 2 or more inverters in a system you cannot differentiate 1 set of strings from the other. When you are doing manual stringing and attempting to edit, this lack of function is very frustrating. The ability to preset a DC-AC ratio as a guide to the automated design would have been advantageous.
Once you have set the inverter modelling to automatic any changes to the array initiates an immediate recalculation of the modelling. When processing capacity is strained the recalculation significantly interferes with designing of the array. The simple act of removing a panel or adding another array adjacent to the existing array initiates calculation process immediately which slows down the user interface.
A battery storage can also be added to the system which is simple. You can choose to have the battery charged from solar or you could choose to take advantage of variable grid rates.
All balance of system and accessories are lumped into the other components category. This is a vast array of devices and services in a single miscellany category which we believe is not the best way of managing it.
- Mounting – Mounting structures ideally should be a category of their own and the options would need to be considered at the stage of the array layout. Granted that most of the structures are rather straight forward certain applications such as the occasional flat concrete roof, carport structures and patio structures are unavailable.
- Monitoring – Energy generation monitoring and consumption metering are devices that can be added as required and often or redundant due to the ability of the new inverters.
This section is entirely customer oriented and designed to inform the customer of the benefits of solar power for their home. Beginning with the image of the array on the roof and in oblique or perspective view the purpose is to present to the customer what the finished solution would look like.
Each component is shown with details on the technology, performance, specifications and links to introductory videos are available. Followed by a graphic comparison of the annual consumption vs electricity generated from solar and the positive environmental impact. How the system works in various modes as applicable to the design is illustrated in a motion graphic indicating the flow of electricity.
The savings for the first year are shown along with graphs that indicate total savings over the life of the solar system, net financial impact and payback period. The calculation is based on the energy consumption & generation data and the pricing and costing details that were configured. It works well to serve as a single page for all the details. The customer can even be presented with a couple of options if they so desire to have a side by side comparison of different panel and inverter choices.
This page can be shared with the customer by sending them the link via email. The customer can then decide on the available payment options and choose to checkout by accepting the proposal and signing the agreement. As a decision making and call to action tool this is indeed a great method of interacting with the customer. It is vital to realise at this point that this is the closest virtual replication of interacting with a customer across the table with the proposal in hand. The virtual sales proposal if executed correctly allows for an engagement at the convenience of the customers’ time which changes the sales process and will reduce the sales cycle time.
The support provided to installers and users in the documentation is quite comprehensive. All aspects of the product are well covered and any issues are actively addressed. There is a weekly webinar of the features and benefits of the platform and several support articles have video walk throughs in addition to instructions with screenshots.
There are several featured partners that work closely including OEMs and Financial Service Providers. Most of them have preferential integration APIs and product representation in the sales proposal. Some of the most notable integrations are Loan & Financing providers for Residential and Commercial requirements such as;
- Sunlight Financial
- Energy Ease
SolarOutlet integration similar to Utility API and NearMap integration enhance the operational efficiency of the solar installers.
SunWiz provides services for optimisation as an OpenSolar Expert Partner. This allows for the technology to be optimised to the installers’ specific business process and best practices. Installers are unlikely to have or retain an in house system administrator and SunWiz provides the necessary support as required.
Installers love a solar simulation software that promises to speed up the sales proposal and improve the sales closure rate. This for them is a win right out of the box and the free platform for them is simply the icing on the cake. One such customer was clearly delighted that he save $2000 a month right away.
Original Equipment Manufacturers and Service provider are delighted by the integrated customer pipeline, product placement and brand recognition that they receive by being part of a platform that is likely to be widely adopted and used.
Customer engagement the core tenet upon which the founders have built the platform shines through as the winning feature that installers love about this tool.
The alternatives available in the world are few and have similar features. The feature set between different solar proposal software depends entirely on the UX and development teams’ vision for what the installers need as a tool to increase sales and improve the business operations. While there is a case to be made for using a fully integrated tool, individual applications do have greater quality in the solution they provide. Whether it is PVSYST providing bankable solar simulation, Helioscope with a very capable design options or SolarGIS providing accurate TMY irradiance data; they are very good in the silos in which they operate.
Aurora solar is a notable alternative that provide similar if not the same functionality. Their shading and object simulation methodology is certainly better.
Enact-Systems also provides the same functionality albeit now a dated software. Visually uninspiring the software lacks functionality and support documentation is nowhere near as comprehensive as it should be.
A recent entry in the market, Solo is currently offering a 50% price discount for those who sign-up before the end of 2020. Solo promises to be an equally appealing an option with all the cloud based and CRM integrated functionality we have grown to like.
OpenSolar is a platform that is free and in principle that can be used as such to the benefit of the installers’ sales and operations. The customer engagement drive is certainly the correct modus operandi and that principle is the value that you derive from it. The question is, when it comes to final execution is the design bankable? Any tool the installer has to attract and retain customers will need to deliver in this aspect. Bankability stems from accuracy and in this case what the user will discover is that right out of the box OpenSolar is not entirely there yet as a free version. One will need to sign-up to NearMap, Utility API and other service providers to get the most out of it. These services require subscriptions and integrating them will require certain level of expertise. All this adds up to a cost for the installer and if these distributed costs are the same as a single subscription then there is no distinct advantage. Having said that, “Open” is the way forward for promoting solar as an energy source and this is a step in the right direction.