Keeping up the with Joneses: Google wants you to go solar


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Barry Lovelace says his solar panels are one of the best financial decisions he’s ever made. Lovelace, who lives in the Mueller Development in Austin, was the first on his street to get solar panels about four years ago.

Since then, his next door neighbor has added solar panels, and the home two doors down has, too.

Lovelace’s story is something Google is hoping to capitalize on: seeing your neighbors get solar panels will make you more likely to get them.

The idea comes from research done by Dr. Ken Gillingham, assistant professor of Environmental & Energy Economics at Yale University. He’s been studying people’s solar panel purchasing habits for 10 years, publishing a paper on the effects our peers have on our decisions to get solar panels installed. Word-of-mouth is essential in getting new people to sign on for solar: it creates a type of “implicit peer pressure.”

“People in California, Connecticut, regardless of where you are do tend to be more likely to install solar if their neighbors install solar.”

Dr. Gillingham’s research indicates that you are significantly more likely to sign up for solar if someone on your street has, but impacts can also be seen at a zip code and even regional level.

Google’s interactive website, Project Sunroof, has been up and running for two years. Last week it rolled out its newest feature, which utilizes Dr. Gillingham’s idea. You can now see a street-level view of what homes in your neighborhood have solar panels, as indicated by a red dot. In a neighborhood like the Mueller Development, red dots are common.

Dr. Gillingham says it makes sense to see a neighborhood cluster. “If many of your neighbors install solar, that creates a different social norm around solar. People become more comfortable with it.”

Believe it or not, the visibility of your solar panels has a big impact, too. “We find that if your solar panel is more visible from the road, that it’s more likely that your neighbors will be installing around you.” Streets with south-facing homes tend to fare best.

Though Dr. Gillingham’s idea was used to make Google’s new rollout, he wasn’t involved directly with the software. He says, “We tried to do it ourselves. But we work at a slower pace at the university level than Google might work.”

Project Sunroof is a free interactive tool aimed at getting more people to install solar panels on their homes and businesses. The tool shows you how much sunlight you can expect where you live and analyzes the shape of your roof to give you an idea of how much solar power your home will produce.

Project Sunroof then gives you an estimate of how much money you’ll save a month, based on the number of solar panels it suggests you’ll need and the current amount of money you pay on your energy bill. Then the site gives you financing options to buy, lease or loan your panels and a list of local providers you can call to get started.

Mara Harris with Project Sunroof says the project’s mission is closely tied with Google’s core beliefs. “Google has always been a proponent of clean energy, and solar power has been a central part of our vision. Over the past year, Project Sunroof has been helping homeowners explore whether they should go solar — offering solar estimates for over 43 million houses across all 50 states.”

Google engineer Carl Elkin started Project Sunroof as a part-time task in 2015 in an effort to map the world’s solar potential. It has since grown exponentially.Tune in KXAN News tonight at 6 p.m. to hear from Barry Lovelace about his experience with implementing solar panels and the benefits he’s seen.

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