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Are Solar Panels a Good Deal? Google's 'Project Sunroof' Expands

The company that lets you compare air fares and translate foreign languages online wants to make it easier to weigh the costs and benefits of installing solar panels on household rooftops.

Google is expanding an online service that quickly tallies up considerations of going solar and whether homeowners should consider buying or leasing photovoltaic panels costing thousands of dollars. Google's Project Sunroof combines the eye-in-the-sky images behind Google Earth with calculations on how much shade trees cast over a rooftop, data on local weather patterns, industry pricing and available subsidies to arrive at its bottom line.

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The service grew in December to analyze properties in the Raleigh area, as well as 15 other metro areas in Arizona, Nevada, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Colorado.

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Interested potential customers are referred to solar-panel installers for further follow-up, cutting their marketing costs, said Carl Elkin, the senior software engineer behind the service.

"We at Google believe in solar energy. The solar industry needs our help," he said.

Google has invested more than $1 billion in recent years into solar energy, including $300 million earlier this year into a fund that finances residential rooftop projects installed by SolarCity Corp. Google invested $280 million in the publicly traded company in 2011.

Project Sunroof launched this summer in San Francisco and Fresno, California, and Boston, where Elkin works. The metro areas were picked based on several criteria, including Google's available satellite imagery and local market conditions including government incentives, Elkin said.

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