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Making "Virtual Worlds" to Get the Most of out Rooftop Solar

Geostellar sends low-flying aircraft over the landscape to create detailed 3D maps that show where solar panels would pay off.

Solar photovoltaics don't work everywhere. You need to be somewhere relatively sunny (duh), but the panels also need clear unobstructed exposure to that sun and a good orientation or slope to maximize the collection of the rays. It also helps to be in a state or city with good incentives, and good access to transmission.

Historically, solar installers have to set up at a prospective site to take all kinds of measurements. But a new company called Geostellar is helping push photovoltaic planning into the 21st Century, using data.

Geostellar sends low-flying aircraft over regions to be assessed. These flights collect LIDAR ("light detection and ranging") data that can be used to map the built landscapes in three dimensions. This creates a "virtual world" of buildings, shadows, and slopes. Then, the company feeds in a raft of other data sets—weather, property values, land use, electricity rates, and proximity to transmission lines—that are essential in making solar decisions.

The image above, for example, is of the south end of the National Mall in Washington D.C. The lighter, the better suited for photovoltaics. The gray areas, not so good.

Here's Union Station. Notice the pink areas on the southeast entrance of the roof, which mean there's pretty incredible solar potential. This video describes the whole big data-driven project in more detail.


According to Earth2Tech, Geostellar already has deals in place with four big solar customers, putting the power of data into the hands of some of the biggest players in the industry. The company is also working on a consumer-facing site that will let regular folks like you and me figure out the potential for PV on our own rooftops.

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