Not Sure if You Should Get Solar Panels? Google It

The search company wants to make it easier for people to decide if they want to "go solar" and add the technology to the roofs of their homes.


Google's new tool tries to make it easier for people to decide on using solar panels.


Google built its empire by collecting a trove of data on users. Now, it's applying that approach to something new: solar energy.

The search giant has launched a website that helps people decide whether it's worthwhile to install solar panels on top of their houses.

To use the service, launched Monday, you start by entering your address. Google then uses images from its mapping satellites to determine things like the orientation of your roof, how much sunlight your area gets throughout the year or what objects, like trees, might get in the way. The tool then estimates what you could save with solar panels, and offers to connect you to local solar providers. For a finer-tuned estimate, you can enter your average monthly energy bill.

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"I've always been surprised at how many people I encounter who think that 'my roof isn't sunny enough for solar,' or 'solar is just too expensive,' Carl Elkin, a Google engineer who leads the project, said in a statement.

The move is the latest example of Silicon Valley being enamored with green energy, as it applies its data-driven approach to the sector. SolarCity, whose chairman is Tesla CEO Elon Musk, will spend $5 billion over the next decade on operations from a manufacturing plant in Buffalo, New York. Tech giants like Google, Apple and Samsung have also made bets in smart home initiatives, with Internet-connected appliances and the software that controls them. One of the hopes for that push is that it could save consumers money on their energy bill.

This isn't new territory for Google, either. In 2013, the company acquired Makani, a startup focused on wind energy, for its experimental projects division Google X. Google also acquired Nest, which makes a smart thermostat and smoke detector, in 2014 for more than $3 billion dollars. The company says the thermostat can cut energy costs by automatically adjusting the temperature of your home when you're away.

In June, Nest announced a home insurance program with Liberty Mutual and American Family Insurance to give customers rewards -- like discounts -- for owning a Nest smoke detector.

Google's project isn't the first time someone has tried to make it easier for people to decide on solar technology. In 2008, the company Sungevity released its own service that calculates the cost of solar panels, also based on satellite imagery.

For now, the Project Sunroof service is only available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno in Central California and Boston, where the Sunroof team is located.

Article updated on August 17, 2015 at 1:40 PM PDT

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Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
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