Students help solar industry find its hot spots

A group of graduate students mapped the solar potential of the entire state.

by Kevin Karner

The solar industry is taking root around the state, and University of Minnesota students are contributing.

This summer, a team of University graduate students created a web application to explore viable places for solar panels across the state, a technology that some say could receive wide usage.

Their project, called the Minnesota Solar Suitability Analysis, comes at a time when some experts say there will be a nearly  30-fold increase in solar capacity by the end of the decade, driven largely by policies passed in Minnesota’s 2013 legislative session. As a result, experts expect a statewide solar boom.

While it’s still a small industry, a recent report by the Solar Foundation notes that solar-related jobs in the state have grown by 73 percent since 2012.

The “Solar Dream Team” of students who worked on the app collaborated with industry consultants to tailor their technology to the needs of local businesses and government officials, said andy Walz, a master of geographic information science student who worked on the project.

To create the Minnesota Solar Suitability Analysis, the students used aerial imaging technology to detect how much solar radiation hits the ground on average in a year, Walz said.

Clean Energy Resource Teams, which partners with the University of Minnesota Extension, hopes to take the technology and promote it for use across the state with the help of the U.S. Department of Energy grants that support solar energy.

The project’s potential benefits have already caught the attention of solar panel installers, said Len Kne, associate director of U-Spatial, the office that oversaw the app’s development.

“It’s good for the homeowner and the installer if they can find the hot properties for solar without visiting them,” Kne said.

The idea is to make the student-developed technology ready for use by Minnesota’s local governments, utility companies and solar installers, said Dan Thiede, a communications manager for Clean Energy Resource Teams and the U Extension.

The app will help solar installers locate ideal properties for individual and community solar panels.

“Instead of using three or four tools, they can use one,” Thiede said.

Besides individual solar panel installations, the 2013 legislation encouraged the use of cooperatively owned panels, he said.

The students’ tool could see more use in the near future. The state’s solar mandate requires large utilities like Xcel Energy to derive 1.5 percent of their energy from solar power by 2020.

This year, the University team won the Esri Climate Resilience App Challenge for their effective use of highly detailed imagery.

This semester, the students aim to make existing solar assessment maps more interactive.

“We think that the additional functionality will help people think of solar as a resource similar to fossil fuels or things that are more tangible than sun,” Walz said. “People currently tend to take sunlight for granted.”