The Terra News
13Jun/17Off

Google’s New Product Puts Peer Pressure to a Sunny Use

The company’s “Project Sunroof” now shows you which of your friends have already put solar panels on their roof.

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Project Sunroof now puts red dots over houses that appear to have solar panels on their roof, such as this neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado.

Google

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Updated on June 12 at 11:30 a.m. ET

One of the best predictors of whether people install solar panels on their house isn’t their age, their race, their level of income, or their political affiliation.

It’s whether their neighbors did it first.

This finding has been shown repeatedly across space and time, including in California, Connecticut, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. “It happens at the street level, it happens within zip codes, it happens within states. It seems to be a common feature of human decision-making that crosses many boundaries,” says Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at Yale University whose study helped establish the finding.

On Monday, Google will put the finding into practice with Project Sunroof, its free online tool that aims to make it easier for people to obtain and use home solar panels. Project Sunroof will now not only inform users how much sun hits their roof, or how much solar panels would save them per month, but also which of their neighbors have taken the plunge first.

Project Sunroof was launched in 2015 by Carl Elkin, an engineer at Google who had worked on local solar-installation campaigns in Massachusetts. It now provides data for 60 million homes across the United States that it has already assessed with its algorithms.

For the past two years, Project Sunroof has walked people through all the information-gathering steps of installing solar panels: After you tell it where you live, its algorithms estimate how much solar energy falls on your roof, calculate how much solar panels would reduce your electricity bill, and deliver estimates from local installation firms like Solar City.

It can also walk you through similar steps if you’re interested in leasing or borrowing panels. “It highlights that, for many people, solar is often free. In many cases, including for my house, solar is better than free,” Elkin told me last week.

Now—in a nod to the powerful peer effects of solar power—it will also show you which of your neighbors have already installed panels. In its map view, Project Sunroof will show a red dot over any home or structure that appears to have rooftop solar.

“People want to know: ‘What if there’s some hidden gotcha in the contract?’and usually there isn’t. ‘Does this work for other people like me? Is solar really viable in my neighborhood?’” Elkin says. “You can zoom around through your town and understand how common solar is in your neighborhood. And many people have found: Wow, there is a lot more solar in my neighborhood than I’d realized.”

“We want people to realize solar is absolutely part of the fabric of American life,” Elkin says.

Google created the data for this feature in-house, training a machine-learning algorithm on the common appearance of rooftop solar panels and then letting it loose on the cities and towns that Project Sunroof already covers. Right now, the company has analyzed installations on about 60 million buildings in the United States; it hopes to get to the remaining 40 million buildings in the next few years. The methodology doesn’t seem to be perfect yet—I noticed some rooftop solar installations in my own neighborhood that the algorithms missed—but it seems to identify most of them.

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/06/googles-new-product-puts-peer-pressure-to-a-sunny-use/529974/

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