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Putting Solar on the Map: A Brief Overview of Solar Mapping


By Kyle G. Crider

As author John Perlin documents in his excellent "Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy," solar has both a rich and lengthy history. Solar mapping, however, has been a much more recent development, driven by computers and geographic information system (GIS) technology.

Solar maps may depict solar energy potential, as well as existing and planned installations. Some maps contain historic information, allowing one to see solar advances over time. Sophisticated map tools allow users to test various solar configurations at a hypothetical installation site, determine cost savings/payback time periods, and even contact installers to “make it so.”

The American Planning Association offers an introduction to solar mapping, including a collection of six briefing papers (PDF) on its website.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) also offers a solar maps resource page that explains: “Solar maps provide monthly average daily total solar resource information on grid cells. The insolation values represent the resource available to a flat plate collector, such as a photovoltaic panel, oriented due south at an angle from horizontal to equal to the latitude of the collector location. This is typical practice for PV system installation, although other orientations are also used.” NREL also offers the Solar Prospector, “a mapping and analysis tool designed to provide access to geospatial data relevant to the solar industry in general and for the siting of utility-scale solar plants in particular.” Energy.gov has similar resources, including a map of Solar Energy Potential.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, has one of the most impressive interactive city-solar maps available. Its Mapdwell Project allows a user to “click on a rooftop or search an address to discover your solar potential.” Mapdwell, “a collective of academics and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ... and top professionals,” depicts existing installations as well as solar potential, and users may test various solar power configurations and determine energy cost savings for new installation sites.

There are excellent solar-mapping resources available at the state level, too. For example, the Georgia Energy Data site, a partnership between Southface and Georgia State University’s Geospatial Laboratory, includes maps for:

  • Solar Installations and Firms – “Explore Georgia’s 1,000+ solar installations and firms. Search for capacity, installer, manufacturer, installation date and more by various geographies including county, utility territory and political districts.”

  • Electricity Production – “Visualize Georgia’s electric power plants, wind installations and major solar installations. Search for source, capacity, plant name, plant owner/operator and more by various geographies including county and political districts.”

Finally, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) hosts an interactive map for their Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools project, which displays information on existing solar installations, as well as highlighting potential savings for future school installations.

There is a famous map-related quote, from “Tobler’s First Law of Geography," that states: “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” By showing us the potential for solar energy and cost savings, solar maps are helping bring solar closer to us, sooner.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Christine 2) Mapdwell Project 3) Georgia Energy Data 4) Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools

Kyle G. Crider is Energy Project Manager for the Alabama Environmental Council and the Alabama Solar Knowledge project. Kyle holds a bachelors in Environmental Studies and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND).

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