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Smile, your roof is being mapped in 3-D for solar
Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter
Business, December 12, 2012
Prospects for home-based solar energy grew brighter for millions of Americans today with the rollout of a computer technology that helps property owners quickly identify whether their rooftop has the right solar intensity and configuration to support photovoltaic (PV) panels.
The technology, pioneered by a West Virginia-based startup called Geostellar with the support of NRG Energy of New Jersey, GeoEye of Herndon, Va., and a handful of angel investors, also creates for the first time a virtual marketplace where property owners and solar system installers can meet and exchange information about how and where PV systems work in specific settings.
Geostellar's advanced 3-D mapping program allows solar intensity to be measured to the square meter to help determine the potential for solar energy production at almost any site for which the company has data. The software then evaluates what configuration would work best at the location and provides information about local and regional installers with the know-how to make such a system work.
All the information will be provided free at the company's website, said David Levine, founder and chief executive officer. "We're launching for the first time a system where anyone in a major solar market can type in their address and get an instant, free and independent appraisal of the solar potential of their rooftop," Levine said in a telephone interview.
In addition to details about size, configuration and installation costs of solar arrays, the software will also allow users to estimate the economic benefits of generating solar power based on overall system costs, local electricity rates, government incentives and usage patterns. Additionally, the program will tell users the estimated carbon emission savings that would be gained by installing systems of different sizes.
"If this takes off, it should become a major application for the renewable energy sector," Levine said. "Much the same way that people think of Google for search, Facebook for social network and Amazon for shopping, we want them to think of Geostellar for solar."
'Rolling out a few counties a day'
Levine acknowledged that meeting such high expectations will require continued robust growth in solar markets. To date, the company has focused its mapping effort on a few key states and regions, including California, portions of New England and the mid-Atlantic, and a few other isolated markets. Eventually, Levine said, the software should provide data on every viable home and business lot in the United States.
"This is very expensive and time-consuming work," Levine said. "We're rolling out a few counties a day, which is quite a bit of data processing." The average county, he added, has roughly 100,000 structures that could support a PV solar panel.
To help offset the high cost of data collection and satellite image processing, Geostellar raised an estimated $14 million from partnering firms and outside investors. The investments have helped to pay for 3-D models that show details about sun angle, shadows and slope on rooftops, as well as infrared imaging that allows property owners and developers to work around trees and other light-blocking vegetation.
Geostellar will earn income by collecting fees from installers and vendors whose contact information is provided on the site. Levine likened the revenue stream to a finder's fee that is paid when a solar developer enters a contract with a user of the site.
He said retailers and installers of solar systems have welcomed the technology as a way to identify new markets. One of those participants is Real Goods Solar, one of the nation's largest developers of turnkey solar systems, and Astrum Solar of Maryland, which has partnered with homeowners on solar energy systems throughout the mid-Atlantic.
"Reaching the right homeowners who can most benefit from switching to solar energy is a big challenge for our industry," said Astrum Solar President and CEO Vadim Polikov. "Geostellar helps close this opportunity gap by offering an elegant way to connect us with a well-informed public."
E&E ClimateWire story here (requires subscription)