Solving Solar’s Biggest Challenges

This article is featured in the September/October 2022 Issue of North American Clean Energy. You can view it on page 10 here.

The supply chain issues and skilled-labor shortages plaguing the solar industry are very real, and they have indeed slowed the industry’s growth. But given the environmental, economic, and geostrategic forces aligning behind solar energy, the most pressing problem solar faces is to figure out how to deploy as many photovoltaic (PV) systems as humanly possible, as efficiently as possible.

Consider just a couple of data points. Experts estimate that, to get to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, we must install 455 gigawatts (GW) of additional solar capacity globally each year through 2030. For comparison’s sake, the total U.S. installed solar capacity stood at about 121 GW as of early 2022, and that of China – the world’s largest solar-energy market – at perhaps 350 GW. In other words, each year, the world must now deploy roughly as much solar as has ever been installed in its two largest economies.

To get there, the solar industry must solve three major long-term challenges. First, it must reduce the soft costs that comprise more than 60 percent of residential solar PV system outlays. Second, it must turn projects quickly both to boost scale and stem the tide of project cancellations dogging the industry. Third, it must develop efficient supplier and subcontractor networks to enhance collaboration and efficiency.

Fortunately, a new class of intelligent software – collectively called solar deployment operations management – is arriving at just the right moment. These cloud-based solutions, which combine the strengths of project, asset, and work-management software, are capable of tracking and managing thousands of job sites, assets, and field crews in real-time, and much more. Let’s consider solar deployment management in the context of those three challenges.

1) Cut Soft Costs

With respect to reducing soft costs, solar deployment management solutions include such features as standardized project templates, automated document generation, and easy-to-use mobile forms for field technicians. While every solar project has its unique aspects (and these systems are customizable to reflect that), standardization along best practices cuts redundancy, avoids mistakes, and speeds the pace of work. These systems also manage site candidates, approvals, and drawings, and they match deployment assets with job sites to ensure that equipment is where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. They also centralize permitting workflows from submission to final approval, further cutting soft costs and shortening project timelines.

2) Turn Projects Fast

Shortening project timelines is an essential element of the second long-term challenge of turning projects quickly. The standardized templates and other features mentioned above also come into play here. So does the automation of complex business processes such as managing capital funding budgets, tax credits, and incentives, as well as the drawing approvals needed to get projects to closeout faster.

Solar deployment operations management systems do more than track. Their machine learning capabilities help forecast project milestones and overall completion times based on inputs from project managers, vendors, jurisdictions, and market conditions. Analytics deliver insights through tailored reports and dashboards, further improving project cycle times and field performance. These artificial-intelligence-powered systems can even help select the best vendors for specific jobs, and inform financing decisions.

Solar deployment operations management is playing a significant and growing role in financing, particularly in commercial solar. By providing granular visibility into dozens, hundreds, or thousands of projects, organizations can demonstrate a detailed track record and give lenders a true sense of the risks and probable ROI of signing on.

3) Build & Sustain Solar-Deployment Networks

Solar deployment management solutions also address the solar industry’s third long-term challenge of developing efficient supplier and subcontractor networks to enhance collaboration and efficiency. These systems bring contractors into the fold to enable collaboration on project schedules, job information and images, and site maps and history to deploy faster and at lower cost. Further, against a backdrop of skilled-labor shortages, these systems’ ability to place scarce resources at the right place at the right time is increasingly vital. The aforementioned standardized processes also embed industry and organizational knowledge into workflows that empower less-experienced staff to perform at higher levels, and with less supervision than otherwise possible.

Underpinning all the advantages of solar deployment operations management systems is the single source of truth their cloud architectures afford. Having one holistic system to manage sites, assets, field work, finance, and other functions brings far better visibility into operations, faster and more efficient deployments, and a quicker path to profitability than otherwise possible.

The days of relying on general construction management software, spreadsheets, or disparate systems for project management, financial management, asset management, field-crew management, and other functions must end if the solar industry hopes to achieve anywhere near the growth the market will embrace in the coming years. Solar deployment operations management systems will be essential in exploiting the vast opportunities – and overcoming the many challenges – ahead, as the solar industry strives to fulfill its enormous potential in realizing our clean-energy future.

Emily Obenauer is senior manager, Product Marketing, Energy, at Sitetracker. She has 14 years working across various facets of the energy and sustainability sectors. During that time, she’s worked with and for utilities, associations, government agencies and laboratories, end-to-end smart grid vendors, Smart Cities, energy storage developers, renewable energy developers and brokers, green financing suppliers, and global sustainability consultancies supporting net zero ambitions.