Solar know-how pours into one easy-to-use app for rooftop PV installers

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A hotlist of Australia’s rooftop solar industry pioneers has coalesced around an app — OpenSolar — launched in May last year to drive the next wave of Australian rooftop solar uptake and boost the success of solar installers by making the process of quoting, design, ordering and application of rooftop solar more streamlined and efficient.

“When these guys came along with their product and I saw what it could, I just thought … Wow!”, SunWiz founder Warwick Johnston told pv magazine last night at an event staged by leading Australian solar equipment wholesalers Solar Juice, in Sydney.

Johnston’s SunWiz is renowned for disseminating market intelligence, software services and strategic consulting to the solar and storage industries, and was yesterday announced as a partner on the OpenSolar platform.

“What I saw from 10 years of providing software was that solar businesses really need help in communicating themselves and communicating solar as something that’s worth spending some money on. I’ve got the experience, tips and techniques for them to do that … coupled now with a platform that does what I always wanted to do,” said Johnston of OpenSolar.

Commercial, creative, concerned citizens

The Solar Juice Portfolio Evening saw the company’s Sales Director, Andrew Burgess quote Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country, invoking “the beauty and the terror” of the Australian experience of landscape and the effects of climate change on amplifying the terror of bushfire, “droughts and flooding rains”.

He told the assembled glitterati of solar manufacturers — including Longi, Tesla, Trina, SMA, REC Group, LG Electronics and Fronius — he was sure that mitigating such effects was “one of the main driving factors that brings us all here tonight. 

“No matter what side of politics you lean towards, or how extreme you believe the different climate forecasts to be, the one thing we all have in common is that we, collectively, can do something to change the future.”

Solar Outlet, the online ordering platform of Solar Juice, this week announced its partnership with OpenSolar, an app which combines project-management, solar design and a digital sales toolkit … now with streamlined online ordering via Solar Outlet, and market analysis and business coaching from SunWiz.

Making market analysis work for the installer community

Johnston will tailor his market intelligence to solar retailers and installers, distilling the macro analysis into business-specific datasets they can use.

Critical among these is a benchmarking service that will help small solar businesses understand how their business is performing against the anonymously aggregated market, and how they can improve performance — all via the OpenSolar app.

Johnston says he’s seen many small businesses, “operating largely in the dark on gut feel, and the common experience is buying a lead, competing with three other people on who can pull their pants down further, and then doing all this hard work and incurring all this potential future liability … with not much to show for it.

“I consult to some of the businesses that are making above 35% gross profit on every job. They’ve built a brand and people come to them. That’s where I can help take people into an upward spiral.”

SunWiz Warwick Johnston and OpenSolar’s Andrew Birch at the Solar Juice Portfolio evening. “It’s good when great people come together and they’re all in alignment — we’re all trying to solve climate change — rather than fight it out!” Johnston told pv magazine. “For me it feels like an expanded team,” he said of his participation in the OpenSolar platform.

Image: pv magazine, Natalie Filatoff

OpenSolar, launched in the second quarter of 2019, has been quietly forming partnerships to expand its utility to the industry ever since.

A partnership announced in September last year with Nearmap aerial imaging allows OpenSolar users to map, plan and present compelling cases for investment in rooftop solar for their clients;  and a partnership with Melbourne-based integrated accounting, wealth-management and lending business, Pinnacle Road, helps businesses connect customers with commercial solar financing.

A combo of free, efficiency-boosting tools and services for a fee

Services such as these are integrated into the OpenSolar app, and available to registered app users for a fee, but otherwise the white-label streamlined and integrated functions on the app are free.

Using OpenSolar, businesses can add their own branding and present to customers from any device in the office or in the field, using 3D modelling tools, beautifully designed, configurable PDF proposals and an end-to-end business-management toolkit.

Partnerships with service and product providers such as LG Electronics, REC Group, Fronius, Enphase and Solar Analytics finance O&M of the app: “We raised a bit of money to build it and now we pay the bills through partnerships. Our app has a sales-proposal tool, and in that there’s content from the hardware guys and we charge them a little fee to present their imagery and branding and videos,” says OpenSolar Co-founder, Andrew Birch.

Birch and Adam Pryor developed the app leveraging their experience at Sungevity a home-solar-system design and financing service they started 12 years ago in California. 

Sungevity used a similar platform to sell directly to consumers, and, Birch told pv magazine last night, “It was like…’We’ve learned so much about what works and what doesn’t work, let’s just build it from scratch, put it in an app, make it multi-device, make it multi-language and make it free.”

Taking Australia’s advanced solar skills into new markets

They have now launched OpenSolar in Australia, the US, Europe and South East Asia. Says Birch, uptake of the app is most advanced in Australia with “hundreds” of registered installers, and in the US.

Danny Kennedy, keynote speaker at last night’s event, talked of the enormous potential for enabling sales of rooftop solar in South East Asia.

Kennedy is Chief Energy Officer at New Energy Nexus, an international non-profit supporting clean-energy entrepreneurs, and operating in Oakland California, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta and Bangkok; also Managing Director of the California Clean Energy Fund; and was a Co-Founder of Sungevity.

He said last night, “The lessons that we’ve learned in places like California and Australia are the lessons we now need to share with the rest of the world,” adding that Australia’s near neighbour, “that 300 million people country, is going to see solar go through the roof; there’s going to be 35 million people in the delta that is Jakarta, and there are currently 22 solar companies in the city of Jakarta, servicing 14 million people today.”

Kennedy urged Australian the industry players in the room to drive efficiencies and expansion of solar in Australia and then head north, “to support the entrepreneurs who are going to take hundreds of millions of humans into modern electricity and mobility services — do it with your smarts, your know-how, sell your services, your IP …”

Maaike Gobel, Country Manager for OpenSolar in Australia and New Zealand, and Danny Kennedy, Chief Energy Officer at New Energy Nexus.

Image: pv magazine, Natalie Filatoff

The evening saw quite a gathering of long-term solar-smart players come together, many of whom established their roots in the industry almost 20 years ago at BP Solar’s then state-of-the art solar-module manufacturing plant (closed in 2009) at Olympic Park, which was perhaps not coincidentally the scene of last night’s gathering.

Said Kennedy about arriving at the Waterview venue, “It was deja vu coming down Parramatta Road, with a few people that used to head out here to work in that very big solar plant … Back then Rami [Fedda, now supply director at Solar Juice] and Andrew [Burgess] were running around Asia trying to source materials to stick into those modules, and Birchy [OpenSolar’s Andrew Birch] was known as Uncle Numbers and selling spreadsheets to the various senior management, and I think the SunWiz was probably in his first sales job …”

And so the connections between the gathered coalition of the inspired and willing were somewhat untangled.

The app-ortunity for onsite solar-mounting design

A recent addition to the OpenSolar platform, Schletter Group, the German supplier of solar-mounting hardware, was represented on stage by Managing Director of Schletter Australia, Trevor De Vries, who showcased a digital tool that will allow installers to seamlessly map, specify, design and order the mounting systems required for rooftop installations, cutting engineering time from an estimated two days to 20 minutes.

Installers can enter project data, including solar module information and postcode, from any device. The postcode entry generates terrain category and the wind loading for that particular area, allowing the tool to calculate required mounts and fastenings …

“The configuration tool includes all the spacing tables for the common fasteners that we use, all the design consideration, and it’s preapproved for Australian and New Zealand Standard AS1170 — so any design that comes out of that tool is approved. It ships with a certificate.”

Ultimately the Schletter tool generates a bill of materials required for the particular project, which feeds directly into the Solar Outlet tool for ordering and shipping of hardware: “You also get a 20-page design report with certifications, the warranty statements and the terms and conditions of sale,” said De Vries.

To the installers in the room, he said, “We had to find a way to make it easier for you guys to work with our product.”

Build it and they will come

As so many are fond of saying at solar events and conferences, “We have the technology!”, but to directly and smoothly apply it to the problems of the many, takes deep understanding of needs on the ground, of enabling technologies and expertise, and of supply-chain possibilities.

As the OpenSolar founders write on their website, the solutions to climate-induced impacts are everywhere, and low-cost and abundant solar technology complemented by storage “is our greatest hope”.

The rooftop solar industry has “a long way to go”, Johnston told pv magazine. He added, “February was again a record month so it’s a great start to the year, and I see it keeping on going — putting aside momentary setbacks [such as Coronavirus] as they ripple through.” 

Agreeing with Johnston’s earlier assessment of the difficulties facing installers in general, Birch and Pryor write, “One of the biggest barriers we’ve seen in our industry’s ability to scale profitably,” and accelerate the transition to clean energy, “is a lack of efficient tools and processes… We hope our free, white-label app, constantly improving and in the hands of the thousands of amazing solar professionals, educating and serving millions of customers, can get us there in time!”