According to the Solar Energies Industry Association (SEIA), photovoltaic (PV) market in the United States grew at an average annual rate of 69 percent from 2000-2010, and it has continued to yield record growth across residential, commercial and utilities markets. PV installations grew 109 percent in 2011 and 76 percent in 2012, and by the end of the second quarter of 2013, more than 9,370 megawatts (MW) of cumulative solar electric capacity had been developed in the U.S., enough to power more than 1.5 million average American homes.

And forecasts point to a hot market in the future. SEIA predicts solar installation levels to continue to grow across most states through 2016—averaging a new solar installation every four minutes—ultimately rising above 10 gigawatts (GW) in annual installations and more than 1 million cumulative installations.

Aiding this growth have been substantial decreases in solar’s “hard costs” — modules and inverters — by 60 percent since 2011, federal and state tax incentives and rebates, and the introduction of attractive, affordable financing options.

Those same opportunities inherent in the rapid growth of solar, however, have also brought challenges to service providers. With hard costs at a negligible rate, solar companies and financiers face fierce competition to attract and acquire customers—the so called “soft costs” of turning the solar curious into solar consumers — and deliver on the promise of lower energy bills. As lead generation and customer acquisition has typically followed a rather hands-on approach, companies have been searching for innovative and efficient ways to funnel in customers.

“Typically, all the soft costs could equal 50 percent of the total cost of completing a solar system,” says David Levine, CEO of Geostellar, an online solar marketplace located near Washington, D.C. “That includes marketing to potential customers, going to their house or site, getting up on the roof to take measurements, designing a customized system, preparing a quote and then installing. It’s lengthy and costly, both for the installer and the consumer.”

However, with the aid of geospatial imagery, image analysis software and big data tools, Geostellar has been helping the whole solar-curious chain to become smarter about solar. Whether it’s organizations wanting a solar market assessment for their state, distributors wanting to generate leads for installers, installers wanting more efficient customer acquisition, or consumers wanting a more streamlined shopping experience, Geostellar has developed a system that nearly completely automates the A-Z of adding another customer to the solar grid.


Shopping for Solar

A seemingly innocuous remark made by an executive three years ago is what prompted Levine to launch Geostellar. During a business meeting this executive wondered aloud how he could better control his company’s energy costs. That question planted a seed in Levine’s head, which he eventually transformed into a desire to make solar relevant to every homeowner in America.

Historically consumers and solar companies, particularly installers, have endured a rather “physical” approach to solar — and still do in many parts of the country. Homeowners expend much effort in researching solar options, requesting and waiting for on-site surveys to be done, and then provided they qualify for solar, wading through piles of quotes before finally choosing a system — a potential solar turn-off. Similarly, companies spend significant time identifying potential customers, marketing their services, dispatching survey teams to scale roofs to calculate their solar potential, preparing quotes and installing systems. That laborious route to installation impacts their completion rates, and ultimately, their bottom line.

Levine saw the opportunity for displacing all of those pre-installation boots on roofs with an automated, streamlined path to solar.

The end goal was to do for solar what KAYAK does for the travel industry: provide an online marketplace where the solar curious can become a solar buyer as quickly and easily as shopping for and buying an airline ticket. That mission was accomplished in December 2013 with the launch of a consumer-centric extension of Geostellar’s online solar marketplace called SolarMojo, a free mobile app that allows homeowners to both compare solar installation and financing plans from industry leaders and purchase a system with the push of a button.

 “As the first e-commerce system for the solar industry, every U.S. homeowner now has immediate access to real-time, free and independent assessments of the costs and benefits of a solar lease, a lending plan or a cash purchase,” says Levine. “They can confidently decide which option is best for them and immediately choose it. Now the only manual labor is the physical installation of a system.”

Indeed, users need only provide their address and average cost of their monthly electricity bill, and Geostellar’s geomatics platform immediately runs a 3D simulation to compute how much sun hits their roof annually, and then automatically layers in other data such as local utility rates, property values and incentives programs to calculate the homeowner’s financial feasibility for transitioning to solar. In addition to the real-time assessment, which includes the up-front solar costs and estimated energy savings, it also provides a list of financing options, and vetted manufacturers and installers for consideration. Users then simply click on the most favorable offering.


Is It a Tree or a Building?

Achieving that front-end shopping simplicity, however, has required some rather complex back-end technological machinations. Not least has been the fact that to supply such customized solar analytics, Geostellar would first need to produce precise maps and 3D models of every county in the U.S. — all 3,143 of them.

With geographic targets in mind, Geostellar began scouring available data repositories for high resolution spatial imagery such as satellite data and LiDAR imagery and gathered into a database ancillary information such as local tax rates, utility rates, precipitation and temperature and zoning regulations. The 3D LiDAR information would enable the company to model a neighborhood’s structures, trees, utility poles and other objects, as well as create a virtual world of shadows, slopes and solar hot spots. With that spatial foundation, they could build in the other relevant data layers to individuate someone’s solar prospects.

However, the ability to supply that real-time customization all hinged on one data layer they didn’t immediately have: building vectors.  

“Without the capability of finding and extracting buildings, it would be impossible to map a rooftop’s solar potential,” says Dan Koopman, a spatial analyst with Geostellar. “Specifically, we need to first determine what’s a tree and what’s a building – a cluster of trees can structurally appear remarkably similar to a building. And with the volumes we needed to process, trying to manually identify and delineate building footprints wouldn’t have been feasible.”

Indeed, as each environment presents unique classification challenges, Geostellar needed to have an image-analysis system that could automatically and accurately distinguish different structures from vegetative types and map out only buildings. It also required a flexible system because not every county has LiDAR data available.

As both Levine and Koopman have had positive experience with Trimble’s eCognition object-based image analysis software, they chose eCognition for their building mapping needs.

“I had an idea of its image processing and classification capabilities, and I knew it would enable us to use variable-quality imagery to produce high-quality solar maps,” says Levine. “Equally important was it would provide the automation without sacrificing accuracy. We couldn’t afford substantial manual QA/QC as a start-up.”


An Enabler

eCognition is driven by rule sets, which are customized workflows of if-then scenarios the software uses to automatically classify specific objects and map land covers. With these rule sets, Koopman has the flexibility to input spatial data and any other relevant data and instruct the software to classify any given county, and thematically map any 2,500-meter-square by feature type. For the solar maps, that feature type is buildings.

Though the routine will change with the geography, typically, once Koopman integrates the available data, eCognition analyses the information to first separate vegetation from impermeable surfaces. Then, based on height, it determines which of that vegetation is grass and which are trees, and identifies what are rooftops and what are roads. Then it delineates building footprints and maps them. Those vector maps are then used by Geostellar’s proprietary solar simulation engine to create and provide on-demand rooftop assessments.

“A unique strength with OBIA software is I can instruct it to mimic how the human brain identifies objects, so it’s better at classifying land cover,” says Koopman. “I can quickly assess upfront the quality of the datasets that I’m working with, tweak the rule sets accordingly, and eCognition does the rest. And it’s fast — depending on county size, it can take one minute to three hours on average to produce a building layer. Compare that to about 90 minutes of manual time for every one minute of eCognition time and the time saving is clear.”

To date, Koopman has mapped more than 600 counties and 33 residential homes.

“eCognition has enabled us to offer a nationwide solar marketplace,” says Levine. “With its classification capabilities, automation and flexibility, we have been able to map about 80 percent of the most valuable solar markets at one-meter resolution. That’s connected us to valuable markets such as California, Massachusetts and Connecticut, states that we wouldn’t have been able to do business in had we not been able to extract features automatically.”

“Solarizing” Statewide

The ability to efficiently connect the solar curious with solar contractors in Connecticut was an appealing prospect for Connecticut’s Clean Energy Finance & Investment Authority (CEFIA). Nicknamed the “Green Bank,” CEFIA is a quasi-public agency designed to drive investment and the expansion of clean energy in the state — Connecticut has the highest utility rates in the lower 48 states, so solar energy has become an increasingly attractive alternative. As such it has worked to increase the adoption of solar through predominantly grassroots solar awareness campaigns and funding schemes.

Although CEFIA has supported 2,000 solar installations since its launch in 2011, it wanted to better capitalize on the growth of solar by offering more financing options and transitioning its small-scale, community-driven solar campaigns to a broader, statewide approach. To solarize the state, it needed a simple, interactive online tool in order to communicate the complete solar story, from the rooftop assessments, to the economics, to the local installers.

“Our research has shown that homeowners are interested in learning how to go solar and trust their neighbors who are leading the charge,” says Kerry O’Neill, CEFIA’s director of residential programs. “With Geostellar’s technology, we could better understand the size of the residential solar market and the investment that would be required to capitalize on the market opportunity. That allowed us to develop the tool we needed to enable solar-curious residents to easily learn how solar could benefit them, find affordable financing options and see who could provide a PV solar system for them.”

 In October 2013, CEFIA launched the GoSolarCT web portal using Geostellar’s platform, allowing  more than one million Connecticut homeowners to obtain specific data regarding their home’s suitability for solar and  compare energy and cash savings for solar leases and loans. The site provides a list of local solar installers that offer new financing products and connects those seeking more detailed information to dedicated solar guides to help them through the process.

“Although it’s still early days, we are already seeing that the GoSolarCT portal is definitely driving traffic to our financing and solar pages, and we’ve seen a jump in requested quotes,” says O’Neill. “It’s a powerful tool to connect with customers.”


Distributing Solar

Driving and generating leads in the competitive solar market has been a key business need for Conergy Americas network of more than 500 installer partners. A leading solar equipment distributor for 10 years, Denver-based Conergy has benefited from falling equipment prices, but has recognized the need to increase efforts to help reduce the soft costs for its installer network to maintain its stable growth.

In November 2013, Conergy and Geostellar officially teamed to create a comprehensive, nationwide solar partnership that features solar equipment packages, financing options and customer acquisition programs. As part of its Conergy Connect program, the new online marketing and “customer funnel” tool is designed to dramatically expand the residential solar market in the U.S. by making the move to solar an exercise in keystrokes for both homeowners and installers.

“This is a completely new way to market for our installation partners,” says Thomas Schwing, western region sales manager for Conergy. “Rather than the traditional costs and time-consuming efforts of marketing and sales, their only cost now is the time it takes them to check their inbox for qualified customer leads. The Geostellar service allows our customers to improve their operating margins and increase sales volumes while reducing soft costs by 10 percent.”

Powered by Geostellar’s solar marketplace platform, potential customers input their address, receive their solar assessment and options available for purchasing a solar system or financing the installation with a loan or lease, and can then choose from a list of qualified, participating installers to do the work. Installers that have signed up with Geostellar then directly receive the homeowner’s request for service.

To date, Schwing has sold the service to 36 Conergy installers across the country and word of the new tool has spread —Schwing recently added to the company’s network a new installer eager to participate in the Geostellar program, revealing a new lead-generation tool for Conergy itself to further build its installer customer base.

And that is, in short, what the solar industry has become — softening the hard costs of going solar. With technological solutions like Geostellar’s, which help to drive down the total cost of solar energy, the solar market picture may begin to burn even brighter.