Why Knowledge is (Solar) Power05/31/2011
Should you put solar panels on your roof? It's a simple question, but not an easy one to answer.
A West Virginia-based startup company called Geostellar aims to make it easier. Using the most detailed aerial maps ever made of the United States, powerful 3-D imaging technology developed for video games and extensive weather data from public and private sources, Geostellar is developing an Internet-based platform that will help property owners figure out whether their homes or businesses are well suited for solar.
Information technology is key to the solar industry, explains David Levine, the company's founder and CEO. "Geostellar," the company says, "precisely computes annual solar potential and short-term production forecasts for every rooftop, lot and field on earth."
To be sure, much of this data is already available. Home solar companies SunRun, Solar City and Sungevity, all California-based and growing briskly, currently provide web-based calculators to help potential customers decide whether solar makes economic sense. These estimates rely primarily on images of the earth captured from geostationary satellites—the satellites that provide weather maps for TV stations—and on public data made available for the U.S. by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Commercial and utility-scale solar power developers, meanwhile, turn to engineering consultants or companies like 3Tier, a Seattle-based tech company, to obtain sophisticated analyses of the financial viability of their projects. But 3Tier's services are priced beyond the reach of most homeowners.
Geostellar hopes to bridge the utility-scale and residential markets. Formed early in 2010, the company has raised almost $2 million in venture capital, in part because of Levine's track record as ann entrepreneur and his experience with the various technologies that the company is mashing together.
Levine, 45, is a lifelong tech guy. He wrote one of the first books on the Java programming language, Live Java: Database to Cyberspace; started a pioneering web design company, Husky Labs; and later founded Emergent Game Technologies, which provided systems infrastructure for networked games, for government and military as well as entertainment applications. More recently, Levine worked for companies using satellite images to predict crop yields and manage timberland.
Geostellar's first solar map of the U.S., developed using public data, was good enough to get Levine in to see executives at Community Energy, a company that develops renewable energy projects, and AES, a big worldwide developer of power projects. Both subscribed to his service.
But Levine lately has focused on getting much better mapping data. Some cities, for example, are willing to share solar maps they have built with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Critigen, an information technology firm spun out of engineering giant CH2MHill, developed solar maps for San Francisco and Los Angeles, using aerial imagery and 3D modeling, much like Geostellar.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has begun an ambitious project to map the U.S. and Western Europe for its Bing search engine using high-resolution photographs. The photos are taken from small planes flying at 17,000 feet on north-south lines about eight kilometers apart across a territory of about seven million square miles. As this video explains, the results are impressive – they capture the contours of the earth, even the slopes of roofs, at a granularity of about 30 centimeters of land per pixel of image.
"The amount of data that we're pushing through, the speed we're getting it out, is just unprecedented in the industry," says Robert Lender Program manager, Bing Imagery Technology. "It's really going to be a complete game changer."
Geostellar combines the mapping data with 3-D modeling that tracks the path of the sun to measure how sun and shade change hourly on every roof in America. Its data is detailed enough to forecast whether your house will get more sun than your next door neighbor's, or the house across the street. In the past, that kind of information meant sending a technician to the house—putting "boots on the roof," the industry calls it—which added cost. "If we can suck a lot of the expense out," Levine says, "it becomes a better value for the property owner and the developer."
He's hoping to license his data sets to solar companies, which can use it either to improve their own software or to market their products or services to those property owners who will benefit most.
Danny Kennedy, the founder of Sungevity, says more data is always useful but that insolation (the technical term for the amount of solar radiation received by a given surface area in a given time) is only one factor shaping solar economics, and not necessarily the most important one. Sungevity recently struck a deal with Lowe's to install kiosks in its stores to promote solar power and provide cost estimates.
Getting solar power in front of Lowe's customer matters as much or more than refining the data set, Kennedy said. "This sets the stage for mass adopting," he said. "It's as easy as buying a bunch of light bulbs now to get your solar options explained."
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