Distributed Energy Resources
Community Engagement

Solar energy just a Google search away?

Search engine giant Google is offering a service that purports to make it easier for homeowners to pursue rooftop solar -- at least the first steps.

Project Sunroof is a new search tool that lets homeowners in select states know if they are eligible for rooftop solar. They just have to type in their addresses.

Solar isn't a good fit in about 49 percent of homes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Shading is one of the problems — and it's a reason people often use for not moving forward. They don't want to deal with the hassle of having the roof evaluated. Moreover, not everyone has the money for solar panels.

Using the same technology as does the satellite-based Google Earth, the program takes a look at the roof remotely and evaluates its solar potential. The program considers roof orientation, shading and local weather. Homeowners also can get information on the cost-effectiveness of going solar by inputting monthly billing information.

Finally, if the customer wants to move forward, Google will help them connect with its selected group of solar providers, a range of companies that include some of the largest national brands to regional installers, according to Carl Elkin, Google's engineering lead for Project Sunroof.

"By working with our current set of partners, our goal has been to better understand ways we can bring value to consumers and the industry as a whole. Also, it was equally important to reflect the range of choices consumers have today when going solar -- from the different forms of purchase options (leases, loans, PPAs, or other community solar options), as well as types of providers," Elkin said.

Challenges associated with installing rooftop solar panels have sparked increased interest in other options including community solar projects. A number of public power utilities have either developed community solar programs or are considering such programs.

Google plans on expanding its partners as the program grows.

The program began as a pilot over the summer in California's San Francisco Bay Area and Fresno, as well as the Boston area. Late last year, Project Sunroof expanded to other metro areas. The program is now available in not only California and Massachusetts, but also Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Connecticut, Colorado and North Carolina.
"We are focusing on regions that can teach us a lot about the usefulness of the tool and how we can improve it over time," he said. "To start, we prioritized some of the most active solar states in the US today."

Google plans to expand the program geographically once it learns more about the value it offers and gains more technology and site experience, he said. The company has yet to determine what states are next.

Tor Valenza, the chief marketing officer of solar at Impress Labs, who frequently writes about solar, sees Project Sunroof as something of a mixed bag so far.

"I like how Google is helping to push consumer solar adoption, but I don't think Project Sunroof is all that novel from a marketing perspective." He said that there are several options available, including lead generation websites, "that do essentially the same thing."

The interface may be too simple, he added, given that it defaults at an 8% loan rate and has a built-in dollar per watt cost, neither of which are changeable. He also was critical of the loan option for not mentioning the 30% federal solar investment tax credit. The credit is available to those who buy their solar panels outright, rather than lease.

"The system seems to favor the lease quotes and giving consumers an inaccurate comparison of financing options. All in all, it needs some tweaking, plus I'd love to see more competition in terms of the installation partners offered," he said.

As Elkin describes it, some tweaking is in fact ahead.

"We plan to improve the product and add features based on feedback from our users, with the hope to expand geographic coverage significantly in the near future," he said.