In the wake of Google’s enormous corporate restructuring under theAlphabet label, Google has announced its latest non-search-related venture: Google Sunroof. Rather than a direct hardware rollout like the Fiber internet startup, Sunroof is purely about outreach: if you don’t believe that solar power could improve your life, sunroof could show you the light. Currently only available in Boston, Silicon Valley, and the Fresno area, it could soon analyze the solar potential of every home in the country.
What sets solar power apart from other next-gen power offerings is that there will not be any one particular Eureka! moment, before which the human race had Bad Power, and after which it had Good Power. Such a hypothetical moment exists for fusion power, and geothermal, and even truly next-next-gen nuclear — but solar power wants to make ever-more-efficient use of a supply of energy that’s already abundant and available. The challenge isn’t so much inventing the perfect solar cell, as distributing a large enough number of good-enough cells, then slowly upgrading that infrastructure over time.
Google, Elon Musk’s Solar City, and others have found that while solar is making huge strides in some parts of the country, it still runs up against skepticism and ignorance from those it could most benefit. They don’t appreciate just how much money they could save over the long term, or perhaps just the volume of solar power that is currently bouncing from their roofs, unused.Google’s Sunroof is an attempt to address this, encouraging homeowners to invest now to save later by making their own power from sunlight.
Sunroof works by taking your address (in participating cities), and calculating the average hours-per-year of sunlight for a particular rooftop, along with the amount of energy this likely represents, the maximum annual savings that could result, and even local installers to make getting the panels themselves as painless as possible. Help with installation will probably end up being one of the more successful and impactful aspects of Sunroof; Google Flights has a fantastic price-compare feature that absolutely obliterates all other wide-ranging flight search programs, and the solar panel market is far less complex and artificially protected.
This initiative builds off of earlier work from MIT, in which a researcher attempted to achieve the same thing in a less-branded platform. With Google’s marketing power and brand recognition to help, however, the public might actually use this service to make financial decisions going forward. Solar power is a fundamentally different sort of energy, not one we receive through a hole in the wall, but one we make for ourselves.
What’s interesting about solar power is that it could be thought of as a feature of the property — one house might have a nicer view, but the other gets no shade during the majority of the day, and that’s just money in the bank. Could you sue a company for erecting a skyscraper and plunging your home into powerlessness? If the government has verbally and financially encouraged you invest in solar power, does solar power become part of the property value? Sunroof is the sort of initiative that could make solar power popular enough to make those sorts of questions pressing.
Myself, I’ve never understood why solar focuses on home-owners, rather than the real-estate business. Getting people to invest $10,000 now, and make it back over several years, is a tough sell. But getting people to invest $10,000 now for an extra $15,000 or $20,000 when you sell in six months? Historically, that’s been a much more successful model. Smart real-estate agents will be looking to Sunroof as a means to prove extra value to potential buyers — and a possible place for value-added renovation.