For the average homeowner, there’s more benefit to going solar than ever before. PV panels pay themselves off faster than ever, and some utilities are even paying their customers for the extra energy they generate. But most people still find the whole idea too intimidating to take action.
That’s where Mapdwell, a spin-off company from MIT that is creating incredibly detailed maps of the solar potential for each and every building in various cities, comes in. It's a finalist for Fast Company's 2014 Innovation By Design awards, which will be announced on October 15.
"Solar energy has all this baggage, in a way. Solar panels have been out there for 30 to 40 years, but most homeowners still believe panels are "complicated, expensive, not-for-me kinds of things," says CEO Eduardo Berlin, an architect and designer who is based in Cambridge, MA. "Solar is a real possibility for many people now, but somehow that got missed. It never got rebranded. The idea that you can put something on a roof and create energy from the sun, it’s pretty amazing."
Mapdwell’s rebranding genius is twofold: It’s created a huge, extremely useful data set that shows the solar potential of every individual roof in cities like Boston and Cambridge, MA and Washington, D.C., and it’s also visualized that data in an intuitive way that building owners can easily act upon—for example, by sharing their solar report directly with a systems installer.
While there are a lot of maps examining the solar potential of various cities, every property is different, and it’s hard for people to know the expense and payoff of a system on their roof without consulting and trusting contractors.
Mapdwell does a first pass at this by crunching numbers instead. Using technology developed at MIT, the company takes LIDAR data from aerial mapping flights and creates detailed, one-by-one meter resolution 3-D models of the terrain, complete with roof shapes and tree foliage. It then analyzes the solar potential—rating each roof from "poor" to "excellent"—by averaging historical weather data for every hour of every day, totaling to 8,600 data points for each and every pixel.
All that data crunching makes it simple for the end user: They just type in their address and see detailed information for their property. The they can custom build a solar system based on how much they want to spend, how much energy they want to generate, and how much environmental impact they’d like to have.
An intuitive, beautiful design was a big consideration at every stage of Mapdwell’s development, from the creation of the tool’s friendly "Work With The Sun" tag line, to the inviting shape and color of the pixels on the map, to ensuring that the massive data set behind the tool didn’t slow the site to a crawl.
Presenting complex information without turning users off or overwhelming them was also a challenge.
"Many times designers want to communicate the minimum amount of information to get you interested. But in this case, it’s different," says Berlin. "We had to show you all the information, which can be overwhelming, but you need to have it if you really want to make a decision." The team solved this problem by presenting different categories of metrics in categorized tabs that detail information such as energy generated, environmental impact, and cost.
Berlin says people really become engaged with the material, spending an average of seven minutes on the tool. So far, Mapdwell has created portal for just a handful of cities, but it is continuing to expand. The company also wants to eventually expand its approach and encourage grassroots environmental change at the city level by making similar information systems for rainwater collection, small wind energy installations, and green roofs. It intends to continue to partner with cities or trusted outside organizations in its work.
Says Berlin: "The challenge is: How can you get people interested? How can you get people informed and excited with all these little things that we can do. If I do it, and you do it, and your neighbor does it, it could really have a huge effect. ... You can really empower change within a community by people having all this information—if you manage to get it to them."