Redesigning solar software for speed, simplicity and scale

In 2011, grad school classmates Sam Adeyemo and Chris Hopper discovered a shared interest in advancing solar energy in emerging markets and teamed up to design and install a solar installation for a boarding school in Kenya. Designing a PV system for a site on another continent made it clear how challenging solar design can be–and how much the design process could be improved with the right tools.

With the idea of building the solar design software they wished they’d had, one that offered the accuracy to confidently design without site visits, our co-founders Sam and Chris launched Aurora Solar in 2013. In the five years since that time, Aurora has grown from a small team that fit around one table to a leading solar design software company trusted by top solar firms around the world. We’ve achieved a lot that we’re proud of, from creating the first solar design program to model the electrical behavior of a solar installation down to the cell-string level to bringing new technologies like computer vision and solar design automation to the solar sector.

Aurora Solar co-founder Samuel Adeyemo works on a rooftop solar installation. Source: Samuel Adeyemo.

We’ve also learned a lot along the way, listening to customers to understand how we could better serve their needs. As we looked toward the future of the solar industry and how we could help the industry grow, we realized there were opportunities to serve solar contractors better if we reimagined our design tools from the ground up.

To deliver a best-in-class solar design experience, we set about rewriting the very code our design software is built on. After nearly two years of development, Aurora has recently released its most significant update ever–a new version of our software that hits the sweet spot between accuracy, speed, scale and simplicity: Aurora reDesigned. In today’s article, we discuss some of the approaches Aurora employed to improve the solar design experience for both small and large solar contractors, in both the residential and commercial sectors.

Simplicity

Accuracy is key in remote solar design software because the value of remote design lies in the contractor’s ability to trust that the precision of the site model (i.e. how many solar panels will fit) and the solar access measurements are on par with what they would get by physically visiting the site. For that reason, accuracy has been a primary focus of Aurora’s software from the start.

But sometimes a high level of precision can make the design process complex. As we redesigned Aurora, we focused on approaches to maximize simplicity and ease of use while retaining accuracy. We worked closely with designers to streamline the software interface and improve user experience.

Drawing from some of the same approaches that enable video games to render incredible 3D visuals, we built a fully 3D design experience that allows solar contractors to seamlessly transition from 2D to 3D views of the project site and PV design. In addition to viewing the site model and solar installation from any angle, solar contractors can make modifications to both in 3D.

We also combined our tools for creating a model of the project site and designing the PV system into a single section of the application. This reduces the need to switch between tools if an adjustment to the site model or design is needed, making accurate design easier. For instance, the whole array or specific panels can easily be dragged to another area of the roof without toggling between 2D and 3D tools.

With integrated site model and system design tools, as well as the ability to edit both in 3D and view the project from any angle, the latest version of Aurora offers greater simplicity for solar design.

Finally, recognizing that the process of stringing panels to inverters can be quite complicated by the many different stringing configurations to choose from, we developed new tools to simplify the process. We semi-automated the stringing process, enabling contractors to spend less time identifying the optimal stringing configuration that meets inverter input requirements while minimizing costs.

Speed

It takes significant computing power to generate and manipulate hundreds or thousands of elements-like roof obstructions, solar panels and inverters–while also maintaining accuracy. Yet speed is key to enabling efficient design, particularly when designing large, multi-megawatt commercial solar installations. By rebuilding Aurora’s CAD functionality and incorporating state-of-the-art graphics technology, we were able to deliver 10-times performance upgrades for large solar projects.

Another change we implemented to reduce design time was integrating Aurora’s performance simulation tools–which precisely calculate the expected solar energy production of the PV system–into the design stage. Solar contractors can now simulate the energy production of a design as they are designing, allowing for real-time understanding of the performance implications of different design approaches.

One way we’ve helped solar designers speed up their workflows in Aurora reDesigned is by making it possible to assess the energy production of a design from within the design tool.

Scale

When we first started building our software in 2013, we began with a focus on the residential solar market. As we grew, we added both commercial solar design functionality as well as financial analysis tools for commercial customers, allowing us to serve the needs of C&I contractors as well. However, designing massive systems on a platform originally built for smaller projects could sometimes be challenging.

By rewriting our software code to utilize a new approach optimally suited for rendering 3D graphics on the web, we created a solar design platform that supports the creation and manipulation of large, multi-megawatt solar designs as well as it supports smaller, residential designs.

An example of the multi-megawatt projects easily supported in Aurora reDesigned.

We also built out a number of new, cutting-edge tools specifically designed for the challenges of large-scale solar designs. For instance, we’ve enhanced Aurora’s automatic obstruction detection, which automatically identifies similar obstructions (skylights, for example) and builds them into the site model. Additionally, we built a more powerful version of our “fill zone” tool, which can optimize panel location to maximize the number of panels that fit within a set space–rapidly producing panel layouts even for massive projects.

Aurora was founded to give solar contractors the tools to easily and accurately design solar installations without site visits. But on a larger scale, our goal is to make solar energy more accessible by driving down the cost of delivering a quality system. In the five years since Aurora started, we’ve advanced accurate remote solar design and developed new tools for solar designers. While we’re proud of what we’ve achieved to date, we’re always considering how we can do better.

Rather than continuing to build upon the same CAD platform we built in the beginning, we saw an opportunity to deliver an order of magnitude increase in simplicity, design speed and the scale of projects Aurora supports by incorporating new approaches in web graphic technology. This new version of Aurora–Aurora reDesigned–not only helps us deliver on our mission to bring solar contractors the best design tools, but also provides a more scalable platform on which to continue our work to bring about a solar-powered future.

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