How The Solar Labs is using AI to help realise India’s large-scale solar ambitions
The government of India has set an ambitious target of achieving 40 gigawatts (GW) rooftop solar by 2022. Meanwhile, studies show that residential electricity users are still hesitant to consider rooftop solar for their homes. Insufficient information and awareness are the primary reasons for this slow uptake.
Besides being a clean energy alternative, solar power promises to deliver lifetime savings to the consumers, while also stabilising electricity access. However, the installation process, assessments, and technical analyses could be time consuming and expensive. To improve accessibility, solar installers need to reach out to consumers at a much faster pace, and with more precise, well-designed, and accurate analyses of their rooftop potential.
Using artificial intelligence (AI), Noida-based The Solar Labs offers this expertise to solar installers, enabling them to “prospect” customers at a much faster pace. We speak to Siddharth Gangal, CEO, The Solar Labs, about how their innovation can help India achieve its solar energy commitments.
Your solar software proposes to help installers prospect more customers, and in the long run, increase the uptake of solar energy in Indian cities. Can you explain how?
Siddharth Gangal: In simple words, The Solar Labs has developed technology that will help people assess how much solar power they can install on their rooftop, how much energy could be obtained, and financial estimates.
Our primary product is a software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based platform that will help solar installers prospect customers. This platform can do a detailed analysis of the customer’s rooftop remotely, with the use of three-dimensional models made from either satellite imagery or drone videos, and automate an optimal installation design. Based on this design, the software furnishes a construction-ready blueprint and the list of materials needed to set up a rooftop solar system.
Installing solar rooftop photovoltaic is an intensive process involving planning, engineering, and design work. By automating this engineering, we help reduce the cost and the time of installation. While it typically takes three to five days for a solar company to design a 100 kilowatt (kW) system, our software takes a couple of hours. This reduces the soft cost of installation and enables installers to increase their business markedly. For example, if installers were prospecting about three to four customers a day through a manual analysis process, AI enables them to prospect about 30 customers in the same timeframe, which makes perfect business sense. Automation also optimises the analysis and installation processes, making them more efficient and reducing errors.
This SaaS-based product will help solar companies optimise their installation process. But how do you plan to reach other players in the sector, including the State and city governments, electricity utilities, and individual electricity consumers, without whose acceptance India’s solar ambitions can never be realised?
SG: A second product we are building, the City Scale Analysis tool, is aimed mainly at distribution companies, governments, and city municipalities. This tool will identify individual rooftops in a large area and suggest system size, generation, and financials for buildings on a city-wide scale. Our website, in partnership with power utilities, will host this data that can be used by governments to study demand aggregation for tenders, and by solar installers to drive mass solar adoption in neighbourhoods without having to do site surveys, thereby saving costs.
Recently, we won the government of Maharashtra and NITI Aayog-organised ‘AI Innovation Challenge’ under the Smart Cities category. As part of the challenge, we are working with the state towards mapping a large area of Mumbai. This will be our foray into city-wide mapping of buildings.
SaaS for solar is a niche platform that holds a lot of promise, but has almost no framework or case studies to build upon. What made you enter this difficult space and what are the hurdles you face?
SG: My interest in renewable energy grew around 2013 while studying electrical engineering in IIT Mandi. Here I learnt about AI and how it could be integrated into the energy sector. Later, while pursuing my internship, I noticed a wide gap between what we learnt and what was happening in the industry. The solar industry was very new and the technology and data it used were nascent. I, along with a few batch mates, identified that solar systems require customised technology. That’s how The Solar Labs was launched, as a way of bringing latest advances in technology to the solar industry.
Since this industry is new, our AI-based services have no support systems; this throws up challenges, starting with difficulty in data procurement. Also, in a new field customers can't access existing case studies, so the onus falls on us to make them confident about the technology. There are other issues like funding for a nascent sector and lack of skilled personnel.
What is your vision for the solar software market in India, and your personal growth plan?
SG: Rooftop solar is growing rapidly in India; last year saw an 80 percent growth in this sector. About a 100 GW solar is installed worldwide every year, leading to the rise of a solar software market to support this growing industry. By 2020, the solar software market is estimated to be around $2.25 billion globally.
In India, The Solar Labs aims to work with the Central, State, and local governments, since they have the potential to be major catalysts. We also aim to work with private companies and utilities. We feel the best way to build the solar energy sector in India is by continuously developing technology and tools that will empower those already in the business and help them bring in more solar.
Our ambitions are also global. We have already started getting enquiries from Australia, Germany, and other countries, and are keen on engaging internationally.
The Solar Labs is one of the 10 startups participating in The CityFix Labs accelerator programme.
The writer, Nitya Kaushik (@itsnotnit), is part of the WRI India communications team.