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Tool That Tracks Solar Installations is Open to All

March 12, 2010

Photo of a screen capture of four graphs created by Open PV's Map Maker. The graphs show cost, capacity, number of installations and size of installations Enlarge image

Open PV's Map Maker lets the user sort through a variety of graphs from the national to the zip code level.

The photovoltaic (PV) market now has an eye-popping, interactive bevy of maps and charts that can let anyone know where PV panels are being installed, how big they are, how much they cost and how fast the industry is booming.

Interested in where PV is installed in the U.S. and how it has grown over time? Go to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Web site, openpv.nrel.gov, and find a dynamic time map showing PV installation activity in the U.S. from 1998 to 2009.

Want to know how fast the cost per watt is plunging in Wisconsin or California? Push "Explore" on the Web site to open the PV Market Mapper application and call up any state in the nation to see graphs on the number of PV installations, cost and capacity over time.

Want to know if your old friends from Kalamazoo or Kokomo ever got around to installing PV on their roof? Zero in by zip code and neighborhood and you can probably find that out too.

NREL Geographers Conceived an Open PV Community

Photo of NREL two men looking at a computer screen. Enlarge image

NREL geographers Chris Helm and Ted Quinby developed OPEN PV as a free software tool for those in the solar field to keep abreast of the latest installations, capacities and costs.
Credit: Bill Scanlon

The Open PV database is the brainchild of geographers in the Data Analysis and Visualization Group within the Strategic Energy Analysis Center at NREL.

"We're building a community of users who are willing to share information about PV installations," said Christopher Helm, a Geographic Information System (GIS) developer and project manager for the Open PV project. "The project is a living, breathing and dynamic database that people can use to explore the U.S. PV market in essentially real-time."

He and Ted Quinby, GIS developer and fellow Open PV project team member, are accepting data uploads from utility companies, local and state governments and the public.

"A big focus in getting this up and running is to spur more data-sharing," Quinby said. "We want to foster the development of a community around collecting and maintaining this data."

So far, Open PV has catalogued more than 64,000 systems with a total capacity of about 733 megawatts.

They know there are more systems out there (there must be more than one system in Illinois, for example) but are confident the numbers will soar as the data-sharing phenomenon catches hold among installers, government officials and utility companies.

Solar Trade Groups Embracing OPEN PV

The two largest solar trade groups, the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Solar Electric Power Association, are fans of the Open PV project and are encouraging their members to use the maps and graphs as tools to grow their businesses.

Installers can use the data to examine their positions in the market and, when they share data, can benefit from the name-recognition that goes with it.

"If people want to see the three or five top installers in their neighborhood, they'll be able to zoom in and find that out," Quinby said. "If they want to know the installers in their region, they'll be able to find that too."

Users Can Explore National, Local Trends

Open PV's Market Mapper launches the user into a kind of time-space continuum.

Users can click on their own state to see how it compares to other states or the nation as a whole in such variables as cost, number of installations and growth. They can do the same for counties or zip codes within each state.

"The idea is that you can drill down to this very specific level," Quinby said. People will soon be able to add comments and even upload photos of their systems.

Users can click on counties or zip codes. "We can show that Louisville Colorado, has 42 installs," Quinby said. "When we have address-level data, we map that as well."

Using the project's new search tool, users can ask complex questions, such as: How many systems of 10 kilowatts or more are in the state of New Jersey and where are they? They can surf through data from several states and find they have questions of their own, such as how Massachusetts enjoyed such a steep plunge in cost-per-watt, from $15 in 2002 to about $7 in 2009.

"We've built a database that varies in space and time, to really understand the PV market and how it fluctuates," Helm said.

Those who want to contribute data can create an account and visit the "Share Data" page.

An installer might upload the information that he has put PV on 200 homes, or perhaps a county energy commission will report the total installations for a three-month period.

Recently, the state of Massachusetts uploaded information on 1,500 PV installations without any solicitation from NREL.

"It's starting to snowball," Quinby said. "We're not having to go out and ask for data as much as we did initially. People and organizations are now coming to us with their data."

Zeroing In on Systems, Data

California alone has more than 50,000 PV installations recorded in Open PV project, more than three-fourths of the nation's total.

New Jersey is second with 3,192, then Massachusetts, New York, Arizona and Connecticut.

"People want to zoom in and see their own system," Helm said. "It's a great tool for doing that, but really it's meant to be more of an aggregate look at data, viewing it on bigger-picture scales."

Open PV captures steep cost decline

Photo of a screen capture of one of Open PV's charts.

Open PV's graphs usually show the per-watt cost of a solar installation falling as the size of the project increases.

One of the graphs on the site uses bars to show the rather sharp decline in average cost per watt to install PV systems from 2000 to 2007.

President Obama has set a goal for solar energy to be competitive with fossil-fuel-based energy by 2015. "This tool can be a mechanism to track progress toward grid parity," Helm said.

"Look at how much we've come down from in just five years," Helm added. "We have a ways to go, but in a few more years, we'll be there."

The Open PV project went on line last October.

"The overall reaction has been positive," Helm said.

"The beauty of the site is that it has positioned itself to be the primary repository of PV data such that future PV installations will be more easily tracked and recorded," Helm said. "The PV market should be gaining steadily. We should see a lot of installs over the next several years."

Helm and Quinby hope to create other open data bases for wind, solar, hot water and geothermal installations — across technologies as well as across space and time.

Learn more about NREL's market analysis group and photovoltaic research.

— Bill Scanlon