UK launch for Solar Monkey offers installers vital time savings

Following Netherlands-based Solar Monkey’s launch into the UK market, Renewable Energy Installer speaks to Jan Pieter Versluijs, one of the company’s co-founders, to find out how this innovative software came about and what it will bring to UK installers.

Here Jan Pieter takes up the story of how it all began. The initial idea for Solar Monkey came in 2015, but we actually started in 2016. My co-founder and I, we basically had two passions, one being sustainable energy – solar energy in particular – and the second, entrepreneurship.

Guess where those two perfectly align? That’s Solar Monkey.

Once an entrepreneur

I first met my co-founder Mels in Delft where we were both at the university studying for masters in sustainable energy technology and then I worked in the UK for three years for a UK consulting firm called Newton Europe.

Before that, I had run a few businesses and once an entrepreneur… it stays in your mind. I wanted to be an entrepreneur again because that’s my biggest passion, having a vision and an idea, building something from scratch and seeing how this becomes reality and eventually starts living on its own. It’s something I enjoy greatly as well as adding value to the delivery of sustainable energy – driving and accelerating it as much as possible.

So back to 2015, and Mels was working on a project developing algorithms to calculate the energy yield of solar installations to a high degree of accuracy. What was really special about it was that he created an all-side measurement, like a 360-degree image, allowing consideration of the effects of shade on the panels resulting in a very accurate yield calculation.

To be honest, it didn’t seem a great idea initially because it wasn’t scalable to visit every location to do on site measurements. Six months later we discovered there was already a 3D point cloud available – a 3D model of the whole of the Netherlands. That was a game changer as it enabled us to build software to do all those things remotely, removing the requirement to visit sites.

So that’s really where Solar Monkey began – creating software that allows installers to do all their work remotely – remote design, calculation and quotation – but using the 3D modelling to do this with a very high accuracy.

Have you found that the same data is available for every country that you’ve expanded into?

Sadly not, it doesn’t have 100% coverage, but, if there is no 3D data the software also runs on available aerial imagery. And I’m very happy to say that this 3D data is becoming more widely available every year which is very good news for us.

Although it runs without it, the addition of 3D data adds some very nice features because it’s able to automatically calculate the roof tilt as well as the shading due to nearby obstacles, which gives you a more accurate energy yield calculation on your solar insulation.

What about the data available in the UK?

We are proud to say that we have recently released the functionality with 3D data to all our UK clients. This means that they also benefit from automated shading analyses. We will also soon launch automated roof tilt detection.

With the modelling the Solar Monkey system does, are there additional steps that installers need to take to ensure the most accurate calculation and the best system design?

What we’re aiming to do is to remove much of the need for a site visit by using the existing data.

We have a lot of clients who don’t even visit the site prior to the installation. Some still do because you can’t work out everything remotely, such as where to place the inverter, or the roof condition – some things are still nice to check on site. But a lot of the work, especially the calculation and quotation, can now be done remotely which is a huge efficiency gain for our clients.

How did you initially roll it out to installers in the Netherlands and get them on board?

It’s always tough to start something new when your resources are very limited. There were just three of us – me and the co-founder, who made part of the software, and our Chief Technology Officer who joined soon after (and is still with the company). I was doing all the sales and marketing myself.

A mistake that a lot of very technical young companies make is to keep developing their product – too shy to take it to market. My approach is different. I will say ‘let’s just throw it into the market and get as much feedback as possible’ even when the product is still very basic. With the feedback from those who initially took the leap, we’ve been able to develop the product much further towards the needs of our clients.

We still speak regularly with our first ever client, who is still a client and a very happy user, and, of course, they get a good deal. We love involving our clients and engaging them in how we continue developing – they are who we built the product for.

How rapid was the growth once you had a finished product to take to market?

I would say the first good product version was in 2017, and things progressed rapidly from there with figures pretty much doubling every year. We saw 100% growth that first year and that has always been our target.

It’s rapid growth but you still need to onboard new clients and further develop the product. There’s a lot to consider in an expanding business but we’re happy that we’re growing quite rapidly, already active in five countries in Europe, and hoping to expand to the rest of Europe within a couple of years.

What have been the challenges in scaling across geographies?

There are many of them with differences between countries – subsidy schemes, hardware materials and also differences in culture.

It means you have to consider how best to do business. There are nuances to consider. Do you work with local people with boots on the ground over there? Do you run it from your home country?

We’ve learned a lot along the way.

Who is your typical customer?

There’s a broad range. Anything from a business with a couple of people up to the huge utility companies, and everything in between.

Whatever the size of the business, the value proposition is very similar for all of them. Solar Monkey is an easy to understand, simple and quick to use piece of software that helps them to be much more efficient and effective. So, we help them to grow much more easily.

It works with any panel specifications. In the background we make sure that we have the whole active portfolio of panels, inverters, etc., in our database, so clients can just say which panel type they intend to install and it will automatically calculate the right return on that panel for the system they’re specifying.

The software enables them to drag and drop the panels on top of a roof, choose an inverter and choose a consumption profile. Then it calculates how much energy that client will consume and how much will be fed back into the grid. By using all this information, automatically calculated, it generates the quotation which can be customised according to the client’s requirements and branding.

Generally, their customers wouldn’t see the quote that is generated by Solar Monkey but some of our clients like to show that and use it as a quality stamp for accuracy.

“ The time saving is definitely the key thing. It takes just 1 to 2 minutes to do a full design calculation and quotation compared to having to visit the location or using old school modelling software that would take hours to model. It’s a huge time saving! “

You’ve obviously mentioned the increased efficiency; what are the other main benefits to an installer of using Solar Monkey?

The time saving is definitely the key thing. It takes just one to two minutes to do a full design calculation and quotation compared to having to visit the location or using old school modelling software that would take hours to model. It’s a huge time saving!

Also, because it’s very simple in its usage, anyone can use it. Most of our users are commercial people, not engineers. Some are not even very tech savvy, so we make it super simple to use. That simplicity also makes it super simple for our clients to scale-up because they can recruit commercial people to create the quotation even while they are on the phone with the client.

Another thing we pride ourselves on is good customer service and a good customer service team. We have people who proactively help our clients to get the most out of our software and to integrate it with existing processes.

Is it an online training system?

When a new client signs up, we will get in touch and organise online training courses for them. For larger clients, we can also provide on-site training courses if there are many users to onboard.

Is it based on a licence fee?

It’s a usage-based licence. You can buy a certain number of projects per month, so that you commit to that number. The higher the commitment, the lower the price per project.

Is there any difference in the cost if a quote is used in an installation?

No difference at all. Once they’ve designed the system, if their customer goes ahead with it, there’s no additional charge for that being a delivered project. To us the quotation is the value that is delivered by our software. Whether it’s accepted or not, is up to them. We do our best to make the quotation as appealing as possible to help them to sell but after that, it’s up to them.

As you expand into new markets, have there been any concerns or resistance to using the product?

It depends on the market. The UK has been very good. We first dipped our toe in the water with a very basic stand at a conference in the autumn last year.

We had people queuing up for our stand! The market has been pretty quiet from 2015 to 2020-2021 but now we see the market really picking up again. There are a lot of new entrants in residential solar so that, in combination with our research, this tells us the UK is a good growth market with lots and lots of installers that could benefit from our software.

There is a lot of talk in the UK about insufficient installer numbers. Time tied up with site visits, system specification and creating quotes means less time delivering installations. I guess Solar Monkey would be seen as way of alleviating that.

The time we save depends very much on the user. Some are quite efficient already but quite a few still work by visiting the location and measuring the roof dimensions by hand. Then they draw on a piece of paper how many solar panels that they can fit on the roof, do some calculations in Excel, copy paste all that stuff into a Word document with the whole process taking anything from half a day to a whole day.

Imagine their sales conversion might be one out of five so they have to do that five times, spending half a week to a whole week on this process alone, to get one install. Now imagine replacing that with a process that only takes a couple of minutes per quotation. That makes a huge difference, a huge impact!

Is the house specific data available for every house?

The aerial imagery, definitely, yes. With regard to 3D data, as we mentioned before, we have the data now in most urban areas. For a house at a very remote location, you can still use the software, but based on aerial imagery alone so a little bit less accurate, but still usable.

Does the product evolve all the time?

Yes, constant evolution. It’s the big advantage of a web-based solution. We can continuously update, and our users will continuously benefit.

Tell us about your hopes for the UK market?

For us it’s a new market, a new adventure. We have a local UK representative, and we were just very eager to dive in. For me personally I have a bit of history because I worked in the UK for three years, so it feels a little like coming home. .Also, solar is taking off in a big way in the UK, with rooftop installations doubling last year.

I’m really looking forward to visiting the UK more often, to meet old colleagues and I’m just very eager to be in the market as I truly hope that we can add a lot of value there.

Going back to my initial motivation, of accelerating the delivery of renewable energy, you can understand that.

We’re a bit idealist here. Of course, we are running a business and the money we generate is the fuel to drive us forwards, but we are genuinely very passionate about solar energy and sustainable energy in general and adding value in any way we can.

What will success look like in five years’ time?

When we enter a market, we want to have a significant impact. Our aim is that around 25% of all the installations in the country will have benefited from our software.