Geo Week News

February 9, 2011

Solar maps and airborne lidar

With the Obama administration shining so much light on solar energy (couldn’t help the pun there), it’s interesting to wonder how much market it creates for airborne lidar. The administration last year announced $2 billion in loans to solar developers – heck, Obama even announced plans for panels on the White House – and it may very well be that the country is getting serious about solar energy for the residential market. 

Why is this good news for 3D? Well, it’s good news for aerial lidar, anyway. By scanning rooftops and their orientation toward the sun, it’s possible to create “solar maps” of communities, which help people understand where to put their solar panels and what their likely energy creation will actually be after they’ve been installed. 

Today I ran across a student at the University of British Columbia who’s doing just that. 

The District of North Vancouver uses laser-scanning technology to find slopes vulnerable to landslides. Tooke discovered the imaging can also track sunshine. 

Tooke said that’s useful information for people. 

“I am interested in giving the citizens just more information on the options that they have for generating energy,” he said. 

(Allow me a quick sidebar to note that “useful information for people” is one of my favorite types of bad writing. To what other beings would the information be useful? Bears? Aliens? Moths? Isn’t it sufficient to say, “that’s useful information”?)

The project sounds similar, actually, to one being undertaken in New York City. In NYC’s case, the maps created by the airborne lidar data “will be used, among other things, to create up-to-date maps of the areas most prone to flooding, the buildings best suited for the installation of solar power and the neighborhoods most in need of trees.”

Perhaps they’ll create something like what LA Country created. In it, you not only can see every solar installation in the county (how they keep track of that, I have no idea), but you can click on any property, including your own, and see the results of a 2006 solar radiation study that tells you how much of your roof is suitable for solar and what your likely power generation from solar panels would be. 

Which is cool beans, if you ask me. 

Of course, I live in Maine, so even if my whole roof were perfect for solar panels, I’d still only generate like half a kilowatt  in the winter, since the sun only shines for roughly 26 minutes a day. Maybe the summer would make up for it. 

So, will there be a giant demand for lidar services as every major city in the country moves toward creating a similar service for their population? Hard to know. But if the efficiency of solar panels continues to increase, and the price continues to fall, maybe all of us will be just like the White House, outfitted with panels. 

Or maybe we’ll get some of those solar shingles the president’s been talking about.

(Edit Feb. 23: Here’s another story on using lidar for solar mapping in Vancouver, a little more robust.)

(Edit March 1: The WSJ weighs in on NYC’s solar-mapping initiative. And they even gave us a video to use for visualization:)

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