As technology evolves, new players emerge and cost cuts remain a priority, solar industry leaders must look to the latest software solutions in order to stay competitive, according to Paul Grana, co-founder of Folsom Labs.
On May 16, GTM and Folsom Labs are hosting the second-ever S3 Solar Software Summit, which is the industry’s first dedicated event covering the growing solar software ecosystem. The one-day event kicks of the 10th Annual Solar Summit, GTM’s flagship solar conference, that will be chalk full of market intelligence, engaging panel sessions and networking opportunities.
We recently spoke with Grana about why the software summit matters and some of the topics that will be discussed.
Why is this a crucial time to be delving into the solar software sector?
Grana: The industry used to be able to count on hardware cost reductions (modules, inverters) to bring down system costs and keep the growth coming. But as hardware costs level off, installers must focus on “operational scaling” to grow, while reducing costs. This means smarter processes, smarter team structures, and smarter software tools.
The solar software sector is also reaching its first level of maturity, with a number of products on the market that have compelling features and functionality, and application program interface (API) tie-ins so that users can link the products with each other to get the best combination of features and functionality. So between deeper feature sets within each of the products, and an increasing number of configurations, it is important for installers to use S3 to ensure they’re using best-in-class tools.
What are some of the important industry problems solar-specific software has already addressed?
Grana: Software solutions have proven to help the industry in both direct and indirect ways. In the first case, software can automate the permitting process for inspectors or assist with financial calculations. Enabling remote site assessment is another example of a direct impact, where software tools can conduct a state-of-the-art shade analysis that avoids the need to send a team to the roof. That’s a very straightforward way to cut down on the number of person-hours required to deliver a system.
The indirect, or second order benefits of software emerge over time as solar companies use the tools. That includes things like the ability to take customer feedback in real-time and edit a system design on the fly, which improves the overall quality of the sales process. We’ve heard from developers that are using software tools to tailor a solar system for a potential customer in real time, right on their doorstep, based on the potential customer’s values -- be it cost, or buy American. And it significantly improves the developer’s close rate. We didn’t build software around that specific goal, but you put software in the hands of creative, smart and motivated installers and they’ll figure out how to change processes and team structure to improve performance.
What’s one of the most significant problems remaining that software can help solve?
Grana: Databases remain a huge problem area and driver of cost. We don’t have a good permit database across the U.S. Utility rates, incentives, module databases and inverter databases are all very inconsistently kept across the U.S. This results in a significant duplication of work across the industry. Hopefully some company will eventually build APIs that make the data available to whoever needs it, but many of these databases haven’t been built yet.
Why is solar-specific software a viable business? Aren't you afraid Google, Salesforce and others are going to step in and beat all of the software startups once the industry is big enough?
Grana: There is an entire class of companies that are focusing on specific industries, and beating the global incumbents. For example, Veeva Systems makes customer relationship management (CRM) software for biotech companies, and went public at a $6 billion valuation -- and have beaten Salesforce consistently head to head. This is because they understand their customer in a way that Salesforce never will, and are able to build a product that is ten times better. Solar software companies have the same opportunity. Once the big guys (Salesforce, Oracle, SAP, Autodesk) realize that the solar software industry is big enough, I think they’ll find the ‘buy’ (i.e. acquire) option will be far better than the ‘build’ option -- if solar software companies prove successful.
Why should someone in the solar industry attend Solar Software Summit?
Grana: S3 provides the next level of depth for people working at the forefront of software -- for the head of sales or engineering. It’s a chance for industry experts to come together and compare notes, to talk about what they do and how software tools enable them to do it. Really, it’s about making sure developers don’t fall behind. If there’s a new product competitors are adopting, this is about making sure developers see it at the same time. Solar Software Summit is for decision makers to make sure they’re using the best-in-class software products, because every year the best in class changes.
Join GTM for the 10th Annual Solar Summit & 2nd Annual S3 Solar Software Summit in Arizona May 16-18. We’ve got the biggest names in the solar industry confirmed to attend and speak. And we've got a packed agenda of topics including solar software, energy storage, finance, community solar, corporate procurement, balance of systems, and much more. Check out the event site here.