Design software has many different uses, touching every aspect of the solar development process. Paul Grana, founder of Folsom Labs, explained that design software may be used in the beginning sales process by measuring the size, cost and expected energy yield of the array. “Then, design software can help engage the customer, generating high-quality imagery and in some cases even giving the customer some input on their system design,” he said.
Rishi Daga, executive vice president of EagleView Technologies, added that design software may become very powerful when it combines high-resolution aerial imagery into the process. EagleView’s Pictometry Online, for example, allows contractors to perform site evaluation and gather basic measurements. The software available today may be used for value-engineering and even for strategic business decision-making and planning.
Solar installers may find, according to Daga, that modern software technology “virtually eliminates the chances of human error when performing calculations and obtaining measurements.” Companies should use these programs, Grana agreed, because they work more efficiently, especially compared to the pencil-and-paper alternatives. “Additionally, design software helps installers generate professional-looking proposals, with high-quality renders of the potential array and powerful analysis of the costs and benefits of the system,” Grana said.
Over the past decade, design software has evolved from pencil-and-paper sketches, to programs such as AutoCAD, and then more recently to those like SketchUp for residential layouts, Grana explained. However, “none of these tools were solar-specific, so they ultimately required too many steps for the user to generate a complete system layout,” he continued.
Modern technologies are more precise, reliable and accessible. Daga cited the evolution of high-speed internet as a major contributor to the advancement of design technology, eliminating the need for installation of special software or local hosting data. The aforementioned programs were cumbersome and required special training, whereas today, “providers are simplifying their systems to make it easy for users to get up to speed quickly,” Daga said.
Advances in mobile technology allow software to be more accessible. “Users are no longer tied to a desktop computer that requires a lot of memory to run the software,” Daga noted. Grana was interested particularly in the advancing quality of contemporary tablets, allowing many installers to pull up their system designs directly in the field, potentially with a customer.
Grana also thought the biggest technological trend of the last five to 10 years was the emergence of the cloud. “It’s a cost-effective, secure, reliable and powerful way to provide software products,” he said.
Software products can employ more powerful calculations without requiring a supercomputer. Being cloud-based also enables real-time collaboration between different engineers, as well as enabling installers to access their work from multiple devices.
Daga referred to aerial image technology as playing a large role in design programs. “Watch out for the impact that drones will make in the industry in terms of design, installation and the ability to perform maintenance inspections in the future,” he said.