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CS students catapult solar evaluations into the future

Avatar for Dave Llorens
Published on 05/19/2008 in
Updated 05/19/2008
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Here is the typical status quo for solar evaluations:

Jim Solar Considerer hears something about solar energy in the media. He contacts a local installer, who sends a salesperson out to climb on his roof. The salesperson takes down several measurements and requests electrical usage info from the customer. A week or so later the salesperson returns to discuss a system he has designed with the customer. Not only is this process slow and tedious, but the vast majority of people never make it to their phone in the first place. As far as the environment’s concerned, this ain’t gettin’ the job done.

Dr. Barry Levine’s Solar Energy Project

Enter Dr. Barry Levine and his CS students at San Francisco State University. Their tool, dubbed www.solaropportunity.org, is an incredibly powerful, open source tool that can make solar explode in any city that utilizes it. Working with project originator Scott Wentworth with the City of Oakland, it will go something like this:

Oakland forks over access to its high resolution flyover photos (called GIS data). Interns at the city import the data into the tool and trace the roofs and obstructions like trees or chimneys. This could be done by anyone…. students, volunteers, even the homeowners themselves, they are even working on image recognition software to drastically reduce this labor requirement.

The roof data is crunched with Clean Power Estimator, one of the most reliable solar calculation programs out there. It then spits out how much solar you can get on the roof, and what the attached cost savings would be.

Finally, if solar works on your property, the City of Oakland automatically sends you a post card with all the financial benefits on it, coupled with some phone numbers of local installers.

And Pow! In one fell swoop, everyone in the entire city knows the impact solar energy would have on their own home. Not to mention that instead of being hit with occasional inserts in the weekly paper, they are getting something personalized and from the city itself with real useful data on it.

This is the future, my friends, and it’s here now.

The software is handed down from term to term and well-documented. The current version is usable, and Oakland citizens, hopefully, will start getting postcards later this year.

I began attending their meetings because I have, since day one, thought that solar/satellite photo synergy is the place to be. CH2MHILL and Sungevity are twoeco geek companies innovating in this space, and I hope to see more. Most of the meetings, admittedly, sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher (Despite my engineering degree, I was lost most of the time), but I understand with great detail, the practical implications that software like this can have. Some of these students are going to do great things (greater than they already have) for renewable energy.

With the next term of students, solaropportunity.org should have a polished, finished product with a successful pilot in the city of Oakland, ready to be picked up by volunteers and non-profits around the US.

Last modified: May 19, 2008

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