Vela Solaris: Solving The Solar Thermal Puzzle With Software

06 November of 2009 by

rex resize200w  key visual orange230 Vela Solaris: Solving The Solar Thermal Puzzle With Software The startup is a puzzle solver. No, not the kind of puzzle you do to while away time. Vela Solaris‘s software system tackles the complicated puzzle that involves using the sun to heat  water or generate electricity.

The Switzerland-based startuphas developed a line of software branded Polysun for designing a solarenergy system that can determine its potential savings over time.

It’s not just for making sure the right components come together, itis also a sales tool to show customers what they will be getting fortheir money, said Simon Geisshusler, director of marketing at VelaSolaris, during Solar Power International (SPI) in Anaheim last week.

The two-year-old company, a spin-off from the Institute for SolarTechnology SPF at the University of Applied Science Rapperswil, alsosells software for consumers who want to calculate their energy savingsand emissions reductions.

Solar companies spend a lot of time talking about making solarinstallations simple, though they tend to focus on the hardware. Butthe growing solar market presents some good opportunities for softwarecreators.

Already, some home energy management software developers that wereinitially focused on monitoring in-home appliances’ power consumptionare moving to include solar energy systems in the mix. Tendril Networksis one of them (see The Solar Home that Powers Itself Down and Tendril Wants to Link to Solar Panels).

National Semiconductor, which began selling electronic device forboosting a solar panel’s power production earlier this year, recentlyacquired an energy monitoring software developer (see National Semi Buys Energy Recommerce).

Vela Solaris’s technology was initially developed at the universityin 1992, and meant for verifying the performance of solar thermalheating systems.

Software for solar-panel installations was added when those systemsbegan to sprout up in European countries such as Germany, wheregovernment incentives have driven much of the market demand.

Vela Solaris not only targets solar heating and cooling and electriccompanies, it also offers software for installing heat pumps that runon geothermal power.

The startup’s tools provide analyses on both the configuration of a system and the financial investments and paybacks.

Databases for weather and solar irradiance help users to selectsuitable equipment for installations in different parts of the UnitedStates. For designing a solar electric system, users get to play withthe tilt of the solar panels and select from a menu of solar panel andinverter manufacturers and their commercial products.

Polysun also calculates energy losses when using different cables and inverters in order to find the best mix, Geisshusler said.

"Some people use larger inverters than necessary to make sure thereis no problem, but they actually lose a lot of electricity in theprocess," he added.

After gathering all those ingredients, the software cooks up bathesof analyses to simulate the chosen system’s power output by hours, daysand months.

"It’s important to show the performance by hours because people wantto tune into the different electricity prices during the day,"Geisshusler said.

The analysis takes into consideration the purchase price of thesystem, government incentives and even inflation, and shows investmentpayback time and carbon footprint reduction.

The software is good for residential and commercial systems.

The company’s key customers are mostly solar thermal equipmentsuppliers. This is not so surprising, given the popularity of thosesystems compared with solar panels, as well as Vela Solaris’ roots.

Solar water heater installations in the United States grew 50 percent in 2008 to reach 139 megawatts, said the Solar Energy Industries Association. Those systems are even more widely used in China – about one in 10 homes has one.

Vela Solaris’ customers include Jomar, Evosolar and Heliodyne in theUnited States and Sonnenkraft in Germany, Geisshusler said. Thesoftware developer, which grew from three employees two years ago to 20now, has sold 20,000 licenses, he added.

Zach Axelrod, CEO of a developer of solar thermal water heatingsystems called Skyline Innovations, stopped by Vela Solaris’ boothduring SPI to buy software.

"We need a tool to build our financial models," Axelrod said. "We want to know which projects are profitable."

Vela Solaris faces more competition in the solar-panel installationmarket, Geisshusler said. Many solar panel makers provide software toits customers, for example. Then there is RETScreen – free softwarecourtesy of the Canadian government – that also proves irresistible.

He maintains that those software offerings aren’t as sophisticated or accurate at modeling and analyzing a system’s performance.

The company counts Solar Design Co. in the United Kingdom and Hottgenroth Software in Germany as more serious competitors.

Polysun isn’t as suitable for utility-scale projects. SunPower,which designs and builds commercial and utility-scale power plants,uses SolidWorks by Dessault Systems and AutoCAD by Autodesk.

Vela Solaris charges customers licensing fees per computer. There isa one-time licensing fee, which ranges from $159 to $4,100, dependingon the features offered. Then there is an annual fee to receivedatabase updates.

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