How to pick the best solar software for your team
A buyer’s guide to solar design and engineering software
Utility-scale solar plants will play an essential role in enabling the transition to green as countries around the world move to reduce their carbon emissions and address climate change.
The digitalization of solar energy systems is key to scalability for utility-scale projects to manage resources effectively. The advanced data and analysis capabilities solar software provide enable project developers and operators to take advantage of economies of scale and maximize their return on investment.
What is solar software?
Solar photovoltaic (PV) software is a design tool that assists solar development, construction and engineering companies to plan their PV projects for optimal energy efficiency, from the design phase through to construction and operation.
Software packages can help organizations to design layouts, optimize the configurations, track the cost of materials and installation, create energy consumption estimates, and plan the integration of energy storage systems.
Companies can then use the designs in sales proposals and follow up with leads faster. The modeling functionality saves companies time and money with accurate remote site assessment that allows them to assess a project site without leaving the office.
When it comes to utility-scale installations, developers, utilities, IPP, and other solar engineering firms face particular challenges as projects increase in size.
How does it help?
The sharp decline in the cost of solar equipment over the past decade has made it more viable to develop projects with large installed capacities of hundreds of megawatts.
But with bigger project portfolios, those working in the space need to manage and interpret growing volumes of data to ensure they keep on top of their operations —keeping LCOE low from the very begining of its PV project pipeline, as proposed by Patrick MacLeamy back in 2004.
Solar software systems help industry stakeholders streamline their repetitive tasks by automating the design process and allowing them to manage project requirements on a single dashboard.
For systems that are operational, project operators can identify assets that may be underperforming and gain visibility into maintenance requirements, allowing them to reduce downtime and the impact on revenue.
PV lifecycle stage & market segment
Segmenting the solar software landscape
There are a variety of options available for solar software packages. For clarity sake, we’ll categorize them based on two variables.
The table below will help you navigate PV software alternatives which are a fit for both — the market segment you, as a professional serve, and the lifecycle stage your team specializes in.
Scientific literature usually split PV plant lifecycle in three stages: Project, operation and end-of-life phases. This guide will focus in the project stage, where you can find the following areas.
PV lifecycle stage
The buyer also needs a specific set of tools depending on where they sit in the solar project lifecycle, from development through to the operation and maintenance and end-of-life phases.
PV market segment
The requirements of a prospective solar software buyer will vary dramatically depending on the size of their projects. In this regard, we’ll find PV software for residential, commercial and industrial (C&I), or utility scale.
Accessing and review resource, grid and geospatial data, such as topography or meteo data streams.
Concept, feasibility study, financing and funding, permits & licensing.
Energy yield estimates
Financial modelling, CAPEX, OPEX and energy output.
Design & engineering
Specification, outline & detailed design.
Procurement, logistics, site preparation & environment mitigation, mounting structures & assembly subsystems, certification & commissioning, connection to power grid.
<10kW per rooftop
Helping businesses design the layout for rooftop PV solar panels. Usually it includes sales proposal modules.
<1MW per facility
Used by contractors to design and optimize PV installations on commercial and industrial (C&I) buildings.
>1MW per plant
Set of solutions for large scale designers and engineers.
For the utility-scale segment
While some apps are versatile enough to serve several segments, this guide will focus its analysis on the solar software available for the utility-scale segment at the project stage.
Who are the buyers of utility-scale PV software?
Each type of utility-scale player has an unique set of requirements and expectations on how solar software can help.
Software for solar developers
Software for solar EPCists
Software for solar engineering firms
What stacks are out there?
Regardless of the type of business, there are some common features you need to be able to work on a solar project — and technically document them so it can be used down the project pipeline:
- Layout and equipment definition.
- Electrical and civil setup.
- Energy yield forecasting.
- Financial analysis.
- Permits and administrative documentation.
- Grid access and interconnection.
- Compatibility of input file types among your tech stack and results shareability.
OPTION #1: AN EASY-TO-IMPLEMENT OPTION WHICH DOES NOT SCALE
Old school PV software stacks
A basic software stack may be composed of generic desktop applications that are not specific to the solar industry, like Microsoft Excel and AutoCAD.
These programs are cheaper to procure but they require manual development work to run complex calculations.
These technology packages are the most flexible. They can be used for many different projects and produce customized results.
However, they do not offer any solar-related features, such as shading analysis and component layout.
Most companies will use AutoCAD to some extent, which is a general CAD software package with design automation.
Companies that need to do only basic analysis will make limited use of CAD software, while companies doing more advanced engineering work will be heavy users of more advanced CAD tools, such as AutoCAD Civil.
Some software examples from this category include:
- MS Office suite
- Google Earth and other mapping tools (QGIS)
OPTION #2: BASIC STEP TOWARDS AUTOMATION THROUGH PLUGINS
CAD software with sunny vitamines
Adding plugins that are tailored to solar projects allows companies to introduce a level of automation to their desktop applications. Many use PVsyst or their alternatives. PVsyst is the totem of photovoltaic energy yield estimation.
Commonly found in many solar engineering teams. It's very customizable but, as a trade-off, it lacks automation. It's a fantastic tool for energy yield calculation —it has been used for almost 30 years— . However, getting results with it requires extensive experience and engineering hours.
Some companies also use AutoCAD plugins to speed up the time it takes to design the layout, such as PVcase or PVCAD.
These solutions require less manual work, but because they are still within the AutoCAD ecosystem, the documentation production capabilities or the computer hardware requirements for simulation utility-scale PV plants are limited.
Whether companies use specialized plugins for performance and financial analysis will depend on where they sit in the project pipeline. Companies that work on the later stages of a project, such as detailed engineering work, may not need to do any performance analysis as the project is already financed at that stage.
Some solar software examples from this category include:
- PVsyst, or its alternatives
- AutoCAD PV plugins, such as PVcase, Helios3D or PVCAD.
OPTION #3: FOR THOSE LOOKING FOR AN IN-DEPTH OPTION
Specialized end-to-end PV software
For a technology solution tailored specifically to those working on solar projects, companies can use specialized PV project planning tools, like pvDesign or Helioscope, to supplement their traditional tech stack tools.
The cost of establishing these stacks can be higher, but they also have greater throughput. Some GIS tools for solar also fit in this category, such as Anderson Optimization and Terabase.
They offer a higher degree of automation than the more basic systems. Companies can develop engineering designs and off-taker proposals from a single app, integrating information from a range of sources —from meteorological or topography to equipment library— .
Specialized solar software applications include a range of features specifically targeted at PV project design at utility-scale.
They offer energy projections, module and inverter configuration, terrain shading modeling, transmission and interconnection data, financial analysis, and simulation settings.
Some examples on this solar software category are:
- pvDesign, PlantPredict, Terabase, HST for utility-scale PV
- Helioscope, PVSol for commercial, industrial and small utility-scale projects
- GIS prospecting solutions such as Anderson
- Optimization for utility-scale projects
- Aurora Solar for rooftop solar installations
OPTION #4: IS ITS TOTAL COST OF OWNERSHIP WORTH IT?
Fully custom in-house software
Some companies develop their own internal tools to produce detailed solar project designs up to their corporate specifications and standards.
Large companies are more likely to allocate resources to devise tailored software stacks that meet their specific requirements for project development.
The total cost of ownership is higher as developing and maintaining software requires a huge amount of IT investment.
Make the right choice for your PV team
Adding another tool to your solar engineering and design stack? Here's how to pick the ideal solar software to expedite time-to-layout and slash LCOE.
Key PV system design software features to watch out
Dive deep on how RatedPower does it
Get an in-depth technical breakdown on the algorithms and rationale behind RatedPower's solar software. Download our methodologies.
Overhead line methodology
This methodology describes the design process to calculate an overhead line that connects the solar plant’s station facility with the grid’s point of interconnection.
Energy yield estimates
This document describes the methodology we followed to calculate the annual energy yield of a solar PV plant in RatedPower's pvDesign.
Bill of quantities calculation
Learn how pvDesign calculates the parameters found in the bill of quantities (BoQ) document. This guide gives you a comprehensive thorough calculation methodology for the BoQ.
Electrical equipment and power cables
This document covers the criteria of each of the electrical cabling standards and sizing features available in the software.
Get a comprehensive thorough calculation methodology on the pvDesign's topography module. Focusing on the criteria we use to design the algorithm and explain you what decisions we made and why.
This document describes the methodology we followed to design and engineering a PV plant using RatedPower's pvDesign.
Substation design and engineering
This methodology describes the basic process to design a step-up substation connected to a PV plant. It also covers the main steps to find the electrical features of a substation.
Power factor resolution algorithm
This document describes the methodology we followed to compute the power factor at the inverter output used by RatedPower's pvDesign.
2-page checklist to compare solar solutions
Don't start from scratch when comparing solar software stacks for your PV team. We take the hassle out with this guide.
Why do solar engineers and designs prefer solar software?
There are clear advantages for solar industry professionals in using end-to-end specialized software for utility-scale solar plants instead of CAD software.
- Solar engineers and designers can quickly compile drawings and documentation for large-scale projects, automating complex calculations and reducing the risk of manual errors.
- They can factor every component in the system into their designs and make use of advanced modeling capabilities to create the most accurate plans.
- PV teams can replace a suite of tools with a single application. Ultimately, that empowers them to increase their efficiency, and deliver more on-time projects.
Consider RatedPower when comparing solar software
I like the simplicity of being able to update components or design parameters like pitch or DC:AC ratio and have a new layout in a manner of minutes
User in Utilities
Enterprise (>1,000 emp.)
Excellent user interface, easy of use and full of features. I love the ability to perform several simulations quickly with different equipments to optimize the design.
User in Renewables & Environment
Mid-market (51-1,000 emp.)
Powerful and fast tool for simulations and optimization of PV plants.
Head of engineering
Small Business (<50 employees)
The most powerful PV design software. It’s an all-in-one platform: from layout to yield and bill of material!
User in Oil & Energy
Enterprise (>1,000 emp.)
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