Google launches ‘Project Sunroof’ to scan rooftops for solar potential

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Google is hoping to spur rooftop solar adoption with a new map that shows individual properties’ capacity to save money — and directs potential customers to solar installers.

The Silicon Valley company yesterday released a website, building on the popular Google Maps application, that analyzes properties’ solar generation potential. Users can enter an address or simply scan a street to see rooftops depicted in bright yellow, with purple shadows where sun is less plentiful.

Google said it created the map after employees noticed people were using its search engine to research specifics about rooftop solar, including how big a system would need to be, how much it would cost and who could install it.

“If people are getting lost trying to find answers about solar, why don’t we give them a map?” the company said in a video. “Project Sunroof” is intended as “kind of a treasure map of solar energy,” Google added.

The tool takes into account roof orientation, shade from trees and other buildings, and local weather patterns, and spits out the square footage and hours of usable sunlight per year.

It also calculates a rough estimate of how much a homeowner could save compared with traditional utility bills with a 20-year leased solar system, as well as an analysis of the economics of buying a system outright. Users can enter their actual utility bills for a more specific estimate. The tool calculates the most efficient system size, subtracts state and federal incentives, and calculates the 20-year costs of leasing, loaning or buying a system.

Plans for nationwide expansion

The map then links to solar installation companies including SunPower, NRG Energy, SunEdison and its recently acquired subsidiary Vivint Solar, as well as smaller companies like SunWork Renewable Energy Projects, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit that specializes in projects with relatively low paybacks.

Boston-based engineer Carl Elkin developed the map during his company-sponsored free time. Google encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their working hours on independent projects that they think will benefit the company.

The tool is available for the Bay Area; Fresno, Calif.; and Boston. Google plans to expand it to the entire country and possibly farther.

“The geographic areas covered by the tool today have a high population density and many homes that could save money by going solar,” said Google spokesman Barry Fischer. “We hope to expand geographic coverage significantly in the near future.”

Fischer said Google was in discussions with more solar companies, as well. “We hope to include many more solar providers in Project Sunroof,” he said.