Amidst the hype around the new Android release name (Marshmallow!) Google quietly announced Project Sunroof: a site that will tell users how much usable sunlight, i.e. strong enough and at the right angle to efficiently be converted into energy, their rooftop gets in a year. It also provides a cost analysis for solar installation based on the current electricity cost (note, it asks for cost, not kW, which is a friendlier measurement than cost) and recommends the number of panels to install accordingly. Then it offers links to local solar providers.
So I tried it. It turns out that my house gets 1,704 hours of usable sunlight per year, “based on day-to-day analysis of weather patterns” and has 1,113 square feet available for solar panels, based on “3D modeling of your roof and nearby trees.” Google then said that based on my current average usage, around $40 a month, I would need only 180 square feet of roof space. The current cost of a solar installation that size (after incentives, another nice touch) would be $9,000 which would only pay for itself in 18 years.
The extreme ease of the calculation was incredible. All Google needed to provide that analysis was my address, to calculate roof space and usable sunlight, and my current electricity payment to make the calculation with my actual usage, not an estimate. Even though solar doesn’t currently make sense for me now, I at least know that I have enough space on our roof and enough usable sunlight to install as soon as costs go down (and they will.)
Here’s why I like this product so much. Google Search is great at helping users find the information they need, but sometimes that information is not enough. That’s why I like that Google’s mission is not just “to organize the world’s information” but also to “make it universally accessible and useful.” It’s that second part that’s becoming more and more important to users. I’m sure that, had I wanted to, I could have looked up the weather patterns for my city in the last 10 years, figured out the best angle for the solar panels, measured my roof, contacted a few solar panel vendors, and done a cost analysis. After all, a Google search could have pointed me to all of those pieces of information separately. Perhaps there is even a cost calculator out there that could have helped. But, as the introductory video stated: “getting started can be pretty frustrating, there’s so much stuff to figure out!” Google also noticed that users were already searching for the different information pieces of the solar puzzle, and was able to gauge their volume in certain areas to see if residents were even interested.
By using minimal input from the user, Google allows them to skip the tedious research needed to conduct a solar feasibility analysis and to provide a dollar amount and required roof space. What a great shortcut! By looking at how users were using a product, Google was able to provide a new product that made a tedious task much easier, thus perhaps enticing more people to make that calculation, and eventually making solar an option for more people.
Eventually, by making solar more accessible, our dependency on nonrenewable energy will be reduced. On a small scale, Project Sunroof will save people money. On a larger scale, Google is helping reduce global warming, one rooftop at a time.