Going Solar with Google’s Project Sunroof


Google’s new online tool will help consumers determine if it’s time to embrace solar panels.

“We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky called the sun,” Elon Musk, solar energy magnate and CEO of Tesla Motors, reminds us. “You don’t have to do anything, it just works. It shows up every day.” And with orders for Tesla’s new whole-home battery far exceeding production rate, and solar panel costs at an all-time low, Google is now in the solar game, using their knowledge of your home to help you decide if it’s time to let the sunshine in.

Enter your address and Google’s Project Sunroof uses satellite data, 3D modeling, weather forecasts and shade analysis to tell you how many square feet of solar panels your house will support and how much annual sunlight can be harnessed. Enter your average monthly utility bill and it’ll tell you how much you can save with solar power, how much it’ll cost you and even connect you with local contractors to help you get started.

So far, the free online tool is only offered in the San Francisco Bay area, Fresno and Greater Boston, but Google plans to extend the service over time. How well does it work? I got in touch with a friend in Somerville, MA, to take it for a spin. An accountant, homeowner and fan of the planet, Kellee Middlebrooks was ready to believe.

Hi, Kellee. Thanks for helping us out. Do you have any strong feelings about solar panels going into this?

Honestly, I’d desperately love to do a solar panel project, but I know exactly how that sort of goes and I’m not ready to put a new roof on the house. I’m already on the fence about doing something, so having some good basic information would go a long way toward convincing me to call an installer and set up appointments.

OK, the site is Google Project Sunroof.

Already there.

Great. What’s your first impression?

We share a roof with our neighbor and I think this is giving me the entire roof instead of our half. That’s not to say it won’t be easy to get a ballpark estimation from this, but that’s definitely something I need to take into account when looking at the numbers here.

Is it easy to use?

Once the house is selected, I can see how much space is available for the solar panels and how much usable sunlight there is each year (based on shade and weather analysis). I really like that I don’t have to know my current energy rates to generate results. I can use a slider to tell them my current normal bill and it gives me estimates for solar power costs.

How do they look?

The dollars my look for us or they may not, only because I don’t know the breakdown of our roof area per unit. However, all things being equal, if I didni’t already have renovation PTSD, it’d be close enough for me to contact one of the supplied providers and get a more accurate assessment.

There seem to be good numbers and they explain the calculations well enough for me to evaluate if they apply to my situation. I love that they break down the three finance paths (lease, loan or buy) and it shows what does into them and what the tax incentives are.

Do the tax incentives pay off?

I’d say they could. There’s a carve out in the tax code for this that applies to regular income. So, that’s good.

Where did you find that information?

I searched the tax database. I’m accountant, my friend. I speak tax code.

I knew I called the right person. So is Google’s Project Sunroof a winner?

The more I play with this, the more I love the concept. If you are a solar fan, I can see this being a spectacular tool. I’m not sure I trust their figures, though, and that’s key to making me pick up the phone. I want to know where they are getting those numbers. Each city has a chosen provider and the rates are negotiated separately. That’s not to say Google hasn’t taken that into account, but I don’t see a way to verify that. I also wish it had some sort of projection for how much coal or oil I’m saving each year. How much carbon I’m saving.

I can tell you, this would also impact my decision about whether my next car is a plug in or not.

I’m not 100% sure this does anything to sway the anti-solar holdouts, but maybe that’s not their intention. If I can generate all my house power and car power and pull myself off the local coal grid, all while I’m saving money? I’m in.





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