Solar Map of New York City

New York City's new Solar Map has gone live, and it's a beauty. With a googlemap style interface, you can zoom into any building in the greater NYC area. Click on the building and up pops  an estimate of the solar power you could generate on its roof, and what that would mean in terms of monthly savings on your energy bill and carbon emissions.

[If your city has, or is planning, a solar map please let me know by e-mail or leave a the comments below]

Playing with the map is addictive. (So far my high score is two thousand kwh from the roof JFK airport – if you find something bigger put it in the comments below!) But maps like these - already being used in other cities - are also gateway technologies helping building owners to understand and take advantage of the potential that is right over their heads.

Even though solar technology has been around for years, it is still relatively uncommon. Large organizations and developers have jumped on board recently. Take Walmart's much celebrated installation of solar on their stores. But there's usually no easy way for smaller property owners to easily get an idea of what solar could do on their buildings.  The solar map takes down that barrier.

Killer Data
The map's estimates are based on an incredible amount of data. The jewel in its crown is a detailed topographical profile of the city that was produced by researchers at the City University of New York.

Using aircraft-mounted lasers, researchers flew low-altitude late-night flights back and forth across the city. Their lasers sent out pulses of light that bounced back registering the height, slope and size of all of NYC's roofs, as well as how they are shaded by neighbouring buildings and trees. Last year's NYT has a great description of this process.

Huge Potential
Just mapping the city at that level of detail has yielded interesting results: 66.4% of New York's roofs are suitable for solar, with the potential to generate up to 5,847 megawatts of power, or 49.7% of the city's  of the current daytime peak demand, and 14% of its total annual electricity use.

Using this info, the city has  identified three “solar empowerment zones” with large solar potential that will receive support from the city to encourage solar installations. More generally, following the federal Department of Energy's Rooftop Solar Challenge, the city is  cutting red tape, relaxing regulations, and streamlining the permitting processes to help building owners get their solar on.

That's all great news.  But to get to even half of the solar potential revealed by the map you will be looking at hundreds of thousands of installations. The map's real genius is that it takes high quality data  and puts it in the hands of every single New Yorker (and anyone else who wants to look at it). Built into the map is also information on the specific zoning codes, and amounts of federal, state and city incentives that your site would qualify for.  (I put $1.5 million worth of solar onto the Statue of Liberty, but thanks to incentives, it only cost me $420,000.  What a bargain!)

Where Next?
The combination of open data, and elegant interface, and a supportive municipality could make for big changes. I only know of two other maps like these currently in use, one in Portland and the other in San Francisco (although the NYT reports “more than a dozen” cities with similar solar maps).  In San Francisco the number of private solar installations has gone from 551 to 2,300 since 2007 when their map was inaugurated.  Well see how long it takes New York (which currently has 400 installations) to top those figures.

It's worth noting as well that the map was very affordable, even cheap, from a municipal perspective.  In total it cost just over $650,000.  Most of that ($450,000) went into paying for the LIDAR mapping. As far as I know there are no similar maps (with or without the advanced mapping technology) existing for cities in Canadian or elsewhere outside the USA.

If your city – wherever you are – has or is planning to put out a solar map let me know.


2 Responses to "Solar Map of New York City"

garry peterson said... 22 June 2011 at 12:35

North Van has one at:

Rel Nelligan said... 22 June 2011 at 14:56

Berkley and LA County also have maps!


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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