Google, which has long funded big solar and wind projects around the world, is stepping into the solar industry in a more web-based and traditionally Google-style way. On Monday, Google unveiled a site called Project Sunroof that lets people Google their address and find how much sun their roof gets, as well as the options in their area for buying new solar panels.
It's a drop dead simple site, and was created by one of Google's Boston-based engineers, Carl Elkin, in his 20% time (the free time that Google gives employees to work on projects they're interested in). The site — which is only available in San Francisco, Boston and Fresno currently — uses data from Google Earth, including high resolution aerial mapping data, to factor in little details like roof orientation, shade from trees, and local weather.
Despite its simple nature, I think Project Sunroof is an example of the kinds of projects that Google (goog) should do more of. Google has spent close to $2 billion on clean energy projects globally, which is very important, but any company with deep pockets and a commitment to clean energy could do that. Very few companies have the depth of data and information, combined with the experience of creating user-friendly products, like Google does.
While solar panels are cheaper than ever before, it's the so-called "soft costs" — sales, marketing, and permitting — that account for the majority of that. With its trove of information, Google could use data to help reduce the price even more.
Project Sunroof includes solar installers like Vivint Solar, SolarCity, and SunPower. If Google can attract users to its new service, it could send substantial sales leads to these companies.
Google marks the section of the site where it lists the solar installers as "sponsored." So Google either is currently — or eventually can be — paid by the installer to get listed there. But I don't have any details about the financial arrangements Google could be requesting.
The U.S. solar industry is growing rapidly. There are more than 20 gigawatts of solar panels now installed in the U.S. and more than 1 gigawatt is being installed each quarter. One gigawatt is about the size of a large natural gas or coal plant. Another 50 gigawatts of solar panels are expected to come online in the U.S. by 2020.
The downside of Project Sunroof is that there are startups like Geostellar that already offer these types of roof mapping services to both the public, for free, and to solar installers for a fee. Sungevity is another large company that's built a strong business off of using public data to help drive lead generation in the solar industry. Pretty Visible is a new startup, out of the Oakland-based incubator SfunCube, which takes a community-focused web approach to solar information.
Google's introduction of this free site could cause some headaches, or at least some changes, for companies trying to make money off of similar services.
For more about solar energy, watch this Fortune video: