Google’s Project Sunroof expands to 7 new states

Source: Madelyn Beck, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Google expanded its Project Sunroof to metropolitan areas in nine states last month, enabling people in those hot spots to estimate whether solar panels are worth installing on a particular roof.

The project launched last summer in Google’s home base in San Francisco; the creator’s home near Boston; and Fresno, Calif. (ClimateWire, Aug. 18, 2015). Now, Project Sunroof is in metropolitan areas in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina.

The system uses Google Earth to glean data from satellite images about how shade and light hit a particular roof and then compounds that with historical weather trends, solar data, and state and national subsidies.

While the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has a website using many of these calculations to help solar buyers, Google’s is a bit more personalized, zooming in on individual rooftops.

“We encourage people to customize the results even further by indicating their typical monthly electric bill amount via the slider tool,” Carl Elkin, Google’s Project Sunroof founder and current engineer, said in a statement.

Once a scientist for several pharmaceutical research companies, Elkin brought his passion for renewable energy into his work.

“Not only have I installed solar panels on my home, but I also was an active volunteer with the local solar advocacy organization Solarize Massachusetts,” he said. “I realized that one of the biggest points of hesitation people have about going solar is that they don’t clearly understand how much it can save them on their energy bill.”

Once hired at Google in January 2013, Elkin said he used his “20 percent time,” which the company gives employees for personal projects, to develop a program to help more people understand solar’s benefits. Now heading the program with a group of researchers, he said one of the problems they’ve had to work through is the satellite images themselves.

Google Earth has a clear view of most areas, but Elkin said “it’s not always easy to figure out what in an aerial map is actually a building in the first place, as compared to other surfaces, such as driveways, lawns or trees.” Once this problem was solved, Elkin said they reduced “classification errors” by 75 percent.

“Ultimately, our calculations are intended to help provide useful information that people can use to get the conversation started with local solar providers, who can follow up with a full on-site roof assessment,” he said. “That said, the physical world can sometimes play tricks on our imagery and software, leading to surprising or incorrect results. We’re continually working to fix any errors or gaps in the tool.”

Once a participant gets an estimate of solar potential, Project Sunroof has partnered with solar installers like SolarCity Corp., Clean Power Finance and SunPower Corp. that it can recommend in the user’s service area. “Our goal is to make the technology and information universally accessible where we see leading to a significant opportunity for accelerating solar adoption here in the U.S.,” Elkin said.

The Business Renewables Center found Google to be the biggest corporate purchaser of renewable power worldwide last year, and Google pledges to triple those purchases by 2025 and spend an additional $2 billion worldwide to support clean energy projects. Last year, the company also invested $300 million to help finance SolarCity’s residential rooftop projects.

While Elkin wouldn’t say where Project Sunroof would crop up next, it is possible to sign up on the site to get updates.