Google’s Project Sunroof: Useful Tool That Uses Us As Tools.

If you haven’t heard about Google’s Project Sunroof, it’s probably because the initiative is in its nascent stages and the news is buried in places only we alternative energy geeks bother to look, but like all things Google it will ultimately, quietly, soak into mainstream American life. When examined from the viewpoint of an off grid amateur radio operator, Project Sunroof is both interesting and concerning.

The basics.
Project Sunroof is an on line tool created by Google for evaluating the viability of solar energy in any given area right down to an exact location or street address. It provides estimates as to how much solar can be harvested, how much it will shave off an electric bill, and will even “helpfully” refer users to local contractors who will set you up with solar.

Using existing Google satellite imaging technology, Project Sunroof applies an algorithm that calculates the angle & arc of the sun, the orientation of your house with the sun, interfering objects such as trees, and average yearly sunshine. It even takes seasonal changes into account, so if your roof is shaded in December but not in June, Project Sunroof will know.

At face value, this is a treasure chest of useful data for the off grid ham. There’s no guesswork needed. Project Sunroof very accurately does all the calculations for you. If nothing else, it’s a brilliant integration of astronomy, computer science, highly complex math, and data mining.

project sunroof


Here’s where it gets creepy.
Nothing about Google should ever be accepted at face value. They always have an ulterior motive. The creepy factor is amped up by the magnifying glass logo and a title that sounds like a spy mission codename. Indeed, there’s more to this. Much more.

Indexing existing solar is very benign, according to Google: Homeowners are more likely to adopt solar themselves if their neighbors have it too, so Google will “helpfully” supply information about who has solar and who doesn’t. They also claim that it will produce a more accurate estimate of market penetration of solar in the USA and how much energy can be produced.

One of the components of Project Sunroof is that the algorithm is capable of analyzing satellite images, identifying existing solar installations, and plotting them on a map. No self reporting is required. Translation: If you already have solar panels on your house, Google is going to know, and so will everyone else. If you do not have solar, Google will announce that fact to the world too.

If your solar panels are not visible from the street, or you live in a remote area, the operational security (OPSEC) implications of being “outed” by Project Sunroof are obvious and quite unsettling. Likewise, for those who do not have solar installed, do you really want that data out there where any nosey neighbor, electric utility, or solar contractor can look it up?

There’s already too much information about us regular citizens floating around the public domain…and now Project Sunroof will be added to the list of intrusions. Of course, Google will be looking for ways to monetize the data without compensation to the source of the data (that would be you and me). Imagine the unsolicited sales pitches that will come out of this. Cha-ching!

At this time not all of the United States is cataloged in Project Sunroof, but before long it will be everywhere. Google plans to expand internationally as well. And those who live in remote areas should not feel too comfortable…the satellites will eventually find and tag you.

If anything, people in sparsely populated areas have more cause for concern. City dwellers might be just another dot in a sea of dots. But out in the country, you won’t be “lost in the mix,” so to speak. A solar installation identified at an isolated location implies that the property is occupied. The obscure retreat that used to blend in with miles and miles of empty & unremarkable geographical features and dirt roads will soon have a big bold dot on it that says, “HERE I AM!”


Project Sunroof coverage area as of August 2017. GRAPHIC COURTESY OF GOOGLE.COM

A lot of unanswered questions.
Of equal concern is what is not on the Project Sunroof website. There is no detailed explanation as to what is done with the collected data or if there is a way to opt out. The sparse FAQ page lists generic information about solar power and links to other resources.

I’m very curious to know how big a solar panel has to be to register in the algorithm. Exactly what counts as a “solar installation”? Will a small one foot square battery float panel show up? What about a single 100 watt panel? What about panels that are not physically attached to a building? What happens if you have a non-permanent setup, such as rental or vacation property, or a camp site? What happens if the algorithm incorrectly classifies you home?

I doubt I’m alone in my mistrust of Big Data. While Google’s Project Sunroof has the potential to be a great resource to the off grid ham, that resource comes with a price: It is intrusive without offering any options for those who do not want to participate. It’s too soon to know where this path will ultimately lead. Given Google’s prior history, I’m expecting that a big chunk of our private lives will be sold off in exchange for a comparatively small benefit.


6 thoughts on “Google’s Project Sunroof: Useful Tool That Uses Us As Tools.

  1. Mike Hohmann

    Thanks, Chris. I was unaware of Project Sunroof, but it does not surprise me in the least. As far as I know, I use nothing associated with Google -no searching programs, no maping/analytics of any kind… you get the idea. I don’t like their business model, which you’ve aptly described above, and I avoid them like the plague! Even so, I’m sure they and half-a-dozen others of like-ilk have ID’d and cataloged me by now regardless. Now my blog will undoubtedly start running slower and/or erratically… what are we do? 😉 RESISTor? Best… de Mike, KEØGZT

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Mike, as I mentioned Project Sunroof is kind of under the radar right now, so very few people have even heard of it. I found out about it more or less by accident when I was researching material for another article. Even if you “never use google” they’ve probably got a file on you somewhere. It’s not the best feeling to have but that’s the world we live in. Thanks for being a loyal Off Grid Ham reader!

  2. Richard Fryer

    Project Sunroof has the potential of actually working against alternate energy related initiatives. Vested interests in the status qua, and there are many, big oil, big coal or big hydro have been working quietly with their partners to make it more difficult for personal alternate energy initiatives to come to fruition. A personal solar plant means less coal or oil to burn. Many utilities have a vested interest in that their distribution system is tied to legacy business plans. Their solutionmight be create enough roadblocks through onerous permitting or inspection procedures in order to drive up the cost of installing alternate energy. Some energy companies may institute a separate distribution fee over and above the consumption as is done in with Ontario Hydro.. It wouldn’t be difficult for a local utility to target a dot on the map and discover… oh do they have the permits $$ or have the inspection$ been done, or is this project even been approved? In some planned developments restrictive covenants specifying architecture/visual conformity restrict or even forbid the installation of solar projects on rooftops and in yards. This is a wonderful application giving the opportunity for ‘big brother’ to put the screws to alternate energy projects to protect numerous vested interests.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Richard, you do bring up a great point. In addition to market manipulation as you describe, the data can be used against individual parties. For example, suppose Big Legacy Energy Corporation finds out through Project Sunroof that a certain neighborhood has a high concentration of solar homes. They now have information that can be used to harass property owners in zoning, building code issues, taxes, and insurance etc. This is all part of the operational security (OPSEC) issue I mentioned in my article. Ordinary things that by themselves have no special meaning can be used against you. Here in the USA, strictly off grid installations are generally not subject to any rules…but that won’t stop anyone from sticking their nose where it does not belong. Thanks for the terrific insight; I hope you’ll stop by Off Grid Ham again.

  3. randall krippner

    Now that’s interesting. I had no idea Google was doing this either. I like to think I’m not a paranoid person, but… I used to service cash registers, scanners, and computer systems in the grocery store industry twenty years ago and even then already they were “harvesting” so much consumer data it was scary, all of it unknown to the consumer. It’s even worse now. So yeah, you can be sure that if Google continues to pursue this, it’s doing so in the hopes of making money off it by selling the data to anyone who can come up with the money. I can easily see how this kind of data could be used in ways that could be genuinely harmful.

    I’m always fascinated with people who think services like Google, Facebook, etc. are “free” because they don’t pay fees upfront for using the service. They aren’t, of course. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone, somewhere, pays for it. They have to sell something in order to keep the lights on. So what they’re selling is you, me and everyone else using the services.

    I should point out that you don’t need Google’s project to do this. There are similar services/calculators out there that can give you a pretty good idea of how effective a solar (or even wind) would be at your location, based on your physical location, weather patterns, etc. It wouldn’t offer the extra data Google’s system does, but a lot of the info Google is providing isn’t important to the actual generation of electricity.

    Randy, KC9YGN

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Randy, you are right: There is no such thing as something for nothing. But there is a difference between voluntarily participating in something and willingly giving up information about yourself as a part of it, and being included in something you may have no personal interest in that compromises privacy without your permission or knowledge. Google did not get to be a multi-billion dollar entity by doing everything for free.

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