The eco-friendly, carbon-footprint-reducing benefits of solar power are fairly easy for home and business owners understand. What’s not so easy is figuring out the logistics: the annual yield of solar panels, panel orientation and how much other structures are blocking the sun’s rays.
Fortunately, a group of MIT researchers have developed a software system that answers all those questions and then some. With their “Solar System” software, scientists mapped 17,000 rooftops in Cambridge, Mass., providing residents with a user-friendly Web interface to look up their homes and get an accurate projection on the cost and return of investing in photovoltaic solar panels. The software is part of the Mapdwell Project, a collaboration between academics, engineers, designers and computer scientists who aim to collect research-based information about sustainable technology and present it to the public in more user-friendly platform.
The Solar System software essentially takes data on solar panel potential and lays it over Google satellite images. Users can select a building and view information about installing solar panels on that specific rooftop, projected costs that include local incentives and deductions, carbon offsets, plus the projected yearly revenue the panels will generate.
Combined with the satellite imagery, researchers used Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data from a previous aerial survey to create a 3-D model of Cambridge. This helped the team chart the exact shape of rooftops and possible sunlight obstructions, such as buildings and trees. By integrating this information with local weather station data, researchers crunched the numbers with a computer simulation called Radiance.
Though the system gives somewhat conservative estimates, the mapping tool shows that if solar panels were installed in locations labeled “excellent” or “good,” Cambridge could generate around one-third of its energy needs. How do you like them apples? (I know, wrong elite university, but right city.)
Still, researchers estimate that Cambridge would need to invest $2.8 billion to reach one third of an energy need return. That may sound like a lot of apples, but it would surely pay off in the long run.