By Mary Jo Wagner, a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Canada.
Read any recent report on the health of the solar industry, and you’ll likely reach the same conclusion: The sun has been shining brightly on this renewable energy sector—very brightly.
According to the Solar Energies Industry Association (SEIA), the U.S. photovoltaic (PV) market grew at an average annual rate of 69 percent from 2000-2010, and it has continued to yield record growth across residential, commercial and utilities markets. PV installations grew 109 percent in 2011 and 76 percent in 2012. By the end of the second quarter of 2013, more than 9,370 megawatts (MW) of cumulative solar electric capacity had been developed in the United States—enough to power more than 1.5 million average American homes—and forecasts point to a hot market in the future.
The same opportunities inherent in solar’s rapid growth also bring challenges to service providers. With hard costs at a negligible rate, solar companies and financiers face fierce competition to attract and acquire customers—the so-called “soft costs” of turning the solar curious into solar consumers—and deliver on the promise of lower energy bills. Because lead generation and customer acquisition typically entail a hands-on approach, companies have been searching for innovative and efficient ways to funnel in customers.
“Typically, all the soft costs could equal 50 percent of the total cost of completing a solar system,” says David Levine, CEO of Geostellar, an online solar marketplace located near Washington, D.C. “That includes marketing to potential customers, going to their house or site, getting up on the roof to take measurements, designing a customized system, preparing a quote and then installing. It’s a lengthy, costly process, both for the installer and the consumer.”
But with the aid of geospatial imagery, image analysis software and big data tools, Geostellar has been educating the entire solar-curious chain about solar. Geostellar has developed a system that nearly automates the entire process of adding customers to the solar grid.
A seemingly innocuous remark made by an executive three years ago is what prompted Levine to launch Geostellar. During a business meeting, the executive wondered aloud how he could better control his company’s energy costs. That question planted a seed in Levine’s head, which he eventually transformed into a desire to make solar relevant to every homeowner in the United States.
Streamlining the Process
Historically, consumers and solar companies, particularly installers, have endured a rather “physical” approach to solar—and many still do in some parts of the country. Homeowners expend a lot of effort researching solar options, requesting and waiting for on-site surveys to be done, and then—provided they qualify for solar—wading through piles of quotes before finally choosing a system. This cumbersome process is a potential solar turn-off.
Similarly, companies spend significant time identifying potential customers, marketing their services, dispatching survey teams to scale roofs to calculate their solar potential, preparing quotes and installing systems. This laborious installation route impacts a company’s completion rates, and, ultimately, its bottom line.
Levine saw an opportunity to displace all of those pre-installation boots on roofs with an automated, streamlined path to solar. The end goal was to do for solar what Kayak.com does for the travel industry: Provide an online marketplace where the solar curious can become a solar buyer as quickly and easily as shopping for and buying an airline ticket. That mission was accomplished in December 2013 with the launch of a consumer-centric extension of Geostellar’s online solar marketplace called SolarMojo, a free mobile app that allows homeowners to compare solar installation and financing plans from industry leaders and purchase a system with the push of a button.
“With the first e-commerce system for the solar industry, U.S. homeowners now have immediate access to real-time, free and independent assessments of the costs and benefits of a solar lease, a lending plan or a cash purchase,” says Levine. “They can confidently decide which option is best for them and immediately choose it. Now the only manual labor is the system’s physical installation.”
Indeed, users need only provide their address and average cost of their monthly electricity bill, and Geostellar’s geomatics platform immediately runs a 3-D simulation to compute how much sun hits their roof annually. The system then automatically layers in other data such as local utility rates, property values and incentives programs to calculate the homeowner’s financial feasibility for transitioning to solar. In addition to the real-time assessment, which includes the up-front solar costs and estimated energy savings, the system also provides a list of financing options and vetted manufacturers and installers for consideration. Users then simply click on the most favorable offering.
Is it a Tree or a Building?
However, achieving front-end shopping simplicity has required some rather complex back-end technological machinations. For example, to supply such customized solar analytics, Geostellar first needed to produce precise maps and 3-D models of every county in the United States—all 3,143 of them.
With geographic targets in mind, Geostellar began scouring available data repositories for high-resolution spatial imagery, such as satellite data and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) imagery, and gathered it into a database with ancillary information such as local tax rates, utility rates, precipitation and temperature values, and zoning regulations.
The 3-D LiDAR information enabled the company to model a neighborhood’s structures, trees, utility poles and other objects as well as create a virtual world of shadows, slopes and solar hot spots. With that spatial foundation, Geostellar could build in other relevant data layers to individuate someone’s solar prospects.
But the ability to supply such real-time customization all hinged on one data layer that wasn’t immediately available: building vectors. “Without the ability to find and extract buildings, it would be impossible to map a rooftop’s solar potential,” says Dan Koopman, a spatial analyst with Geostellar. “Specifically, we needed to first determine what’s a tree and what’s a building—a cluster of trees can structurally appear remarkably similar to a building. And with the volumes we needed to process, it wouldn’t have been feasible to manually identify and delineate building footprints.”
Indeed, because each environment presents unique classification challenges, Geostellar needed to have an image-analysis system that could automatically and accurately distinguish different structures from vegetative types and map out only buildings. The company also required a flexible system, because not every county has LiDAR data available.
Finding a Solution
Because Levine and Koopman already had positive experiences with eCognition object-based image analysis (OBIA) software from Trimble (www.trimble.com), they chose eCognition for their building mapping needs.
“I had an idea of its image processing and classification capabilities, and I knew it would enable us to use variable-quality imagery to produce high-quality solar maps,” says Levine. “Equally important was it would provide the automation without sacrificing accuracy. We couldn’t afford substantial manual [quality assurance/quality control] as a start up.”
eCognition is driven by rule sets, which are customized workflows of if-then scenarios the software uses to automatically classify specific objects and map land covers.
With these rule sets, Koopman has the flexibility to input spatial data and any other relevant data and instruct the software to classify any given county and thematically map any 2,500-meter-square area by feature type. For the solar maps, that feature type is buildings.
Although the routine will change with the geography, typically, once Koopman integrates the available data, eCognition analyzes the information to first separate vegetation from impermeable surfaces. Then, based on height, the software determines grass and trees as well as rooftops and roads. Then it delineates building footprints and maps them. The vector maps are used by Geostellar’s proprietary solar simulation engine to create and provide on-demand rooftop assessments.
“A unique strength with OBIA software is I can instruct it to mimic how the human brain identifies objects, so it’s better at classifying land cover,” says Koopman. “I can quickly assess upfront the quality of the datasets I’m working with, tweak the rule sets accordingly, and eCognition does the rest. And it’s fast. Depending on county size, it can take one minute to three hours on average to produce a building layer. Compare that to about 90 minutes of manual time for every one minute of eCognition time, and the time saving is clear.”
To date, Koopman has mapped more than 600 counties and 33 million residential homes.
“eCognition has enabled us to offer a
nationwide solar marketplace,” says Levine. “With its classification capabilities, automation and flexibility, we have been able to map about 80 percent of the most valuable solar markets at 1-meter resolution. That’s connected us to valuable markets such as California, Massachusetts and Connecticut—states we wouldn’t have been able to do business in had we not been able to extract features automatically.”
In short, the solar industry has realized the importance of softening the hard costs of going solar. With technological solutions like Geostellar’s, which help to drive down the total cost of solar energy, the solar market may begin to burn even brighter.
Driving and generating leads in the competitive solar market has been a key business need for Conergy Americas network of more than 500 installer partners. A leading solar equipment distributor for 10 years, Denver-based Conergy has benefited from falling equipment prices, but the organization has recognized the need to increase efforts to help reduce the soft costs for its installer network to maintain its stable growth.
In November 2013, Conergy and Geostellar officially teamed to create a comprehensive, nationwide solar partnership that features solar equipment packages, financing options and customer acquisition programs. As part of its Conergy Connect program, the new online marketing and “customer funnel” tool is designed to dramatically expand the U.S. residential solar market by making the move to solar an exercise in keystrokes for homeowners and installers.
“This is a completely new way to market for our installation partners,” says Thomas Schwing, western region sales manager for Conergy. “Rather than the traditional costs and time-consuming efforts of marketing and sales, their only cost now is the time it takes them to check their in-box for qualified customer leads. The Geostellar service allows our customers to improve their operating margins and increase sales volumes while reducing soft costs by 10 percent.”
Powered by Geostellar’s solar marketplace platform, potential customers input their address, receive their solar assessment and options available for purchasing a solar system or financing the installation with a loan or lease, and then choose from a list of qualified installers to do the work. Installers who have signed up with Geostellar then directly receive the
homeowner’s request for service.
To date, Schwing has sold the service to 36 Conergy installers across the country, and word of the new tool has spread. Schwing recently added a new installer eager to participate in the Geostellar program, revealing a new lead-generation tool for Conergy itself to further build its installer customer base.
The ability to efficiently connect the solar curious with solar contractors in Connecticut was an appealing prospect for Connecticut’s Clean Energy Finance & Investment Authority (CEFIA). Nicknamed the “Green Bank,” CEFIA is a quasi-public agency designed to drive investment and the expansion of clean energy in the state. Connecticut has the highest utility rates in the lower 48 states, so solar energy has become an increasingly attractive alternative. The state has worked to increase the adoption of solar through predominantly grassroots solar awareness campaigns and funding schemes.
In October 2013, CEFIA launched the GoSolarCT Web portal using Geostellar’s platform, allowing more than 1 million Connecticut homeowners to obtain specific data regarding their home’s suitability for solar and compare energy and cash savings for solar leases and loans. The site provides a list of local solar installers that offer new financing products and connects those seeking more detailed information to dedicated solar guides to help them through the process.
“Although it’s still early days, we are already seeing that the GoSolarCT portal is definitely driving traffic to our financing and solar pages, and we’ve seen a jump in requested quotes,” says Kerry O’Neill, CEFIA’s director of residential programs. “It’s a powerful tool to connect with customers.”