Smart Software Bolsters Utility-Scale Solar Projects

The solar industry is on a continuous innovation curve — driving advancements, pushing boundaries, and harnessing solar energy’s power to increase returns and drive down the lower levelized cost of energy (LCOE).

Stakeholders across the solar value chain have a variety of ways to optimize solar photovoltaic (PV) throughout the project lifecycle. And for each stakeholder, project optimization means something different. I will demonstrate here how one racking company’s software solution helps developers and EPCs achieve every solar site’s full potential.

A racking company’s software solution helps project developers and builders achieve a site’s full potential. Source: Terrasmart

Project Scenarios and Moving Targets

Utility PV requires multiple cost/benefit scenarios from all involved parties.

To uphold their reputations for making ideal procurement choices while building projects that meet owner goals, EPCs understand that optimization means:

  • Maximizing module placement on the site to meet capacity targets (MW).
  • Creating a site configuration that meets both capacity and energy generation (MWh) goals.
  • Circumventing topographic challenges while minimizing civil grading costs.
  • Satisfying all of these targets with the most cost-effective racking solution.

While project developers share an EPC’s success criteria, their primary focus is on the project’s economic drivers, including:

  • A site’s best rate of return that achieves the lowest LCOE.
  • Delivering the lowest CapEx and OpEx for the project owner, ensuring long-term reliability and cost-effective operations and maintenance.

Looking Beyond the Status Quo

Conventional feasibility study methods are burdensome and often miss the mark. Engineers work on design layout and performance while analysts develop financial models. It can take weeks for pricey consultants or internal teams to evaluate various site configurations. And even after they model the system’s design, there are no guarantees that this final layout is the most optimized system for the site.

Some ground-mount companies offer project feasibility software to help EPCs and developers assess multiple cost/benefit scenarios quickly to support rack selection. Source: Terrasmart

Delivering speed and increasing value: But smarter, faster—and complimentary—project optimization is available. As part of their solution, some ground mount companies offer project feasibility software to help EPCs and developers assess multiple cost/benefit scenarios quickly to support rack selection.

Part of the quoting process, this value-added service provides deep insight into optimized designs even before they are sent to the estimating team. Such software can isolate racking, module configuration, and myriad other criteria including:

  • Rack type (fixed or tracker) and quantity.
  • Module type (bifacial vs. monofacial), rating, and quantity.
  • Site capacity and configuration, such as ground cover ratio (GCR) and DC:AC ratio.
  • Grading requirements for different types of racks with varying slope tolerance.
  • Financial scenarios such as IRR and LCOE targets modeled at each analytical step.
  • Weather and performance factors.

Ultimately, smart tools help EPCs and developers get a clear picture fast: What is the cost of racking? How many modules can the site accommodate? How much energy can be produced?
These powerful tools crunch through hundreds of layouts and performance models with matching slope analyses in a matter of minutes.

Supercharging Decisions

Look for seasoned software experts to lead the way through project optimization. Intricate details such as row spacing, for example, require nuanced handling to adjust for the unique characteristics of each site. It’s incredibly valuable to optimize GCR to create the best case for capacity and generation.

While CAD designers typically don’t have time to run many iterations, feasibility software can take every possible permutation into account, ensuring that no one—not the developer, the EPC, or the racking provider—leaves value on the table.

Real-world scenario: When an independent power producer (IPP) sought racking for its 9-MW distributed generation project in Texas, it already had identified unusable parts of the site. Facing extreme space constraints, the IPP needed to shoehorn in as much PV as possible on the parcel.

Solution: Using its site feasibility software, the IPP’s racking vendor modeled a variety of GCRs—ranging from 30% to 60%—against different types of racking systems to reach the project’s 9 MWdc target. In under 60 seconds, the software generated 21 proposed layouts, comparing a fixed tilt rack to a slope-tolerant tracker system.

Because of the tool’s speed, the IPP could be part of the design iteration process in real time. Using topographic data from USGS, the software was able to quickly provide slope analyses for each racking option to deliver a more realistic design. As the design meeting concluded, the IPP had several realistic layouts to consider; the software extracted a CAD of the final layout to hand off to the racking company’s design team so that they could provide a quick turnaround on pricing for the racking system.

Project feasibility software should enable project developers to gain confidence in early-stage decisions, improve project returns, and speed up the development cycle. Source: Terrasmart

Results: The experience allowed the IPP to scope realistic design options to meet its system needs. Because the final design used a slope-tolerant tracker, it offered the cost advantages of reduced grading and civil works to manage the hilly terrain.

Even more importantly, the project feasibility platform verified that the land could meet the IPP’s needs, leading to closing the deal on the site’s purchase. Generating such a thorough list of options this early in the process would have been impossible using conventional feasibility study methods.

What to Look for in Project Feasibility Software

To gain confidence in early-stage decisions, improve project returns, and speed up the development cycle, developers and EPCs should assess project feasibility software for these key features:

  • Does it offer Individual layouts and performance models comparable to industry gold standards, such as PVSyst, to allow optimal design choices and product selections?
  • Can it integrate seamlessly with industry databases and export files to initiate downstream work (i.e. component data from PAN, OND, and KMZ well as exporting data in SHD and CAD formats)?
  • Does it offer accurate topography functions that allow importing USGS and Google Earth data for slope analysis, Topographic shading, and other factors?
  • Can it deliver comprehensive financial modeling including IRR, LCOE, and NPV to optimize project returns?
  • Does it offer fast and easy-to-use browser-based systems with multi-configuration modeling and cloud architecture to eliminate the need for additional software?

Driving the industry forward with software innovation: Projects no longer need to languish for weeks awaiting optimization of a single design configuration. Put a stop to guessing games, eliminate assumptions, and discover more value in each project. Partner with a racking company that can help streamline your project’s feasibility to achieve the best possible system design to meet your revenue and production goals.

Jake Bartosch is the lead sales manager for Terrasmart’s Solar Instant Feasibility Tool (SIFT).

SHARE this article