Counting the Cost of Embracing Sustainability

Most people—and virtually all business owners—have heard Titus Maccius Plautus’s maxim, “You must spend money to make money.” Less familiar is the maxim’s sustainability corollary: “You must spend money to save money.”

While it doesn’t cost anything to recycle, adjust your thermostat, or commute by bike instead of car, many sustainability actions come with a hefty price tag. High-efficiency appliances, electric and hybrid vehicles, and other energy-saving products routinely cost more—sometimes much more—than their conventional counterparts. (For example, a 2017 Honda Accord hybrid costs $29,605, 33% more than a 2016 Honda Accord sedan.) If you want to save both the planet and some money, you have to do some careful calculating.

When it comes to rooftop solar, Google is making that process easier than ever. In April 2016, the tech giant expanded its Project Sunroof service to 42 states (and announced plans to reach all 50 states soon). Project Sunroof (https://www.google.com/get/sunroof) uses high-resolution imagery from Google Earth to calculate the available square footage of a home’s roof and weather data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to calculate the hours of usable sunlight per year. In about a second, the service gives you an estimate of the upfront cost of solar and your potential savings over 20 years. The calculations even take into account your average electric bill, financing costs, and any available federal and state incentives. (Project Sunroof’s FAQ page details the data sources that go into its calculations.)

If Project Sunroof’s back-of-the-envelope calculations convince you that solar is a good idea, you can forward your contact information to a solar provider like Pick My Solar and SunPower. (Providers pay to receive referrals through Project Sunroof.)

While Project Sunroof has the benefit of the Google name, it’s not the only such service on the World Wide Web. PMax Solar (https://pmaxsolar.com) offers a similar service, while QuickSolar (https://www.quicksolar.com) will generate a quote for your home and let you chat with a QuickSolar designer. The Mapdwell Project (https://www.mapdwell.com) offers similar capabilities for a small number of US cities.

As interest in solar panels increases, services like Project Sunroof will undoubtedly improve. Besides spreading to all 50 states, Google is promising to add commercial properties in the future. And, of course, the calculations will change as energy costs rise and the price of solar panels continues to fall. In the meantime, these services could help you decide whether to call a local solar company for an estimate or to pursue other sustainability measures instead. Bike commuting, anyone?