Infographic: How Much Money Will Solar Panels Save You?

Cambridge’s new solar tool shows residents and businesses how much sunshine their rooftop gets—and how harnessing it will affect their bottom line.

Call me crazy, but I’m still holding out hope that the humongous energy ball we’re orbiting could someday play a larger role in satiating our voracious appetite for electricity. But to get there, we’re going to need a lot more resources like Cambridge’s new Solar Tool, a web application that gives Cambridge residents and business owners a wealth of information on how efficient a planned solar setup might be for their home or business—and, most importantly, how much money they stand to save.

Even as more affordable photovoltaics and government incentives for adopting renewable energy sources have made solar a financially attractive alternative in some areas, it can still be hard to find accurate, easy-to-understand information to help make the leap. The Solar Tool, developed by the Sustainable Design Lab at MIT and Boston-based design workshop MoDe Studio, aims to solve that problem for the city of Cambridge. Simply enter your address, and a comprehensive satellite map of Cambridge shows you how efficient your own rooftop is for soaking up the sun’s rays, from excellent to poor, down to the square meter.

But as cool as the bird’s-eye view of a building’s solar potential may be, the tool’s true value is in the hard data it spits out. Residents can instantly see how much they stand to save annually by switching to solar, what sort of tax credits they might be eligible for, and even the return on their solar investment as it compares to the Dow Jones average or a 10-year Treasury Bond. John Bolduc, an environmental planner in the city’s Community Development Department, said the basic idea behind the tool was to give interested parties all the information they need to move forward in the process. The goal, he explains, was to "educate the public about the feasibility of solar [photovoltaics] and to get them to take the next step of calling an installer."

We’ve seen some similar tools before, but Cambridge’s could well be the most complex—and genuinely useful—yet. As Eduardo Berlin, co-founder of MoDe Studio told me, "no tool is quite like ours." For one thing, the algorithms and simulations Dr. Christoph Reinhart and his team at MIT’s Sustainable Design Lab designed to power the map are unprecedentedly precise. "It computes actual roof slope," Berlin explained, "adjusts performance according to air temperature, considers shading from trees and neighboring buildings, and even reflections from neighboring structures."

But getting accurate data is only half of the challenge—just as much attention was put into how that information was presented to users. The team at MoDe designed separate sections for the financial and environmental impact of a prospective installation, "helping users understand their potential both as an investment and an instrument for sustainability," Berlin told me. It’s an incredibly important insight: People may be attracted to solar because it’s green, but the key to turning that interest into a new installation will almost always come down to the bottom line.

Check out the solar tool for yourself over on the city’s website.

[Hat tip: Boing Boing]

[Image: Solar Panel via Shutterstock]

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