Put solar panels where it's sunny, wind farms where it's windy. If only it were that simple.
Choosing the best sites for renewable energy projects is a challenge for clean-power developers; selecting the right location and securing permits can take months, even years. That's because seemingly prime parcels may have endangered species, tricky topography or poor access to transmission lines. The local government could be hostile to incentive programs. Banks and utilities need to know exactly how much power is going to come off a site hour by hour and how much money it will make — none of it evident without a deep dive by lawyers and investigators.
Now a former gaming executive believes that he has come up with a way to do it faster and more cheaply using the 3-D animation modeling that helped make the video game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion into a big hit and a ray-tracing technology used on the "Toy Story" movies.
David Levine, former chief executive of Emergent Game Technologies in Calabasas and a former executive at several energy data mapping firms, has developed a patented Web-based tool that crunches vast quantities of publicly available information.
Details on a site's sun exposure, topography, vegetation and other characteristics can be gleaned at the touch of a button. The idea is to spot opportunities — and obstacles — quickly.
"Geostellar identifies the fastest, most profitable and least risky paths to increasing renewable and clean energy production," Levine said.
Online prospecting tools are already available from other well-established services including 3TIER Inc., AWS Truepower and Clean Power Research. They also use public data and correlate it with decades of proprietary research on specific sites to refine their numbers.
Geostellar has a different idea. The company models the whole U.S. at once, with an eye toward tackling the entire globe, using patented algorithms.
To measure solar resources, for instance, it uses 3-D modeling to track the path of the sun to measure how sun and shade change hourly on every square meter of rooftop and desert scrub in the country. Geostellar has developed similar modeling for wind and is working on hydro and biomass models.
For homeowners, Geostellar expects to make it easy to figure out how much power can be generated off their roofs.
Commercial developers, utilities or banks that subscribe to the Geostellar service will be able to get data about the resource and the parcel as well as the cost of electricity generated. They also can submit queries for project sites that would be capable of producing a specific amount of energy.
Green energy veterans hope the company's technology can get projects to market faster and more cheaply.
Levine's Geostellar "is not inventing any wheels, so to speak," said Matt Cheney, chief executive of San Francisco-based CleanPath Ventures, which invests in renewable projects and advised Geostellar. "He just puts the information in a package that is easily and readily accessible, so it essentially shortens the development process remarkably. And from that perspective, it's somewhat of a breakthrough."
Set to launch soon, Geostellar plans tiered pricing for its subscription services. Energy producers will pay based on the number of users they have and the size of the area they need to cover. Landowners will get the service free. The state of California and many residential solar panel installers such as SolarCity already offer rough estimates on electric bill savings for free.
At a recent meeting with GreenPower Capital in Burbank, a company that arranges funding for renewable projects, Levine pulled out a laptop to demonstrate Geostellar to CEO Dick Talbert. Levine doesn't necessarily want Talbert's money as much as he wants his queries: Getting better data to the financiers is the holdup in most renewables projects.
Geostellar's utility-scale tools were not available at the time of the GreenPower meeting, so Levine proposed a simpler question: What if a homeowner in, say, Indianapolis — where Talbert is from — wanted to figure out whether installing a solar power system made sense? On the Geostellar site, Levine pulled up a Google Earth-based map of Indiana's capital. Solar potential is measured on the map in an easy-to-read scale from hot pink (lots) to black (none).
Levine demonstrated that if homeowners or developers were to zoom in on a roof, they could see exactly how much sun would hit every square meter. More clicks reveal the whole parcel, who owns it, whether there are any renewable energy incentives in that area and how the sun exposure changes during the day. The user can then get an estimate of how much money could be made by putting a solar system on that roof, or what the payback time would be.
"This is going to be a great tool for developers," Talbert said.