Alternative Energy Update: Can Your Rooftop Lower Your Electricity Bill?

From Money Morning Staff Reports

The owners of homes and businesses in 25 U.S. cities will soon be able to use a free Web site to determine their rooftop’s solar-energy potential – thanks to a new specialized mapping program that has the backing of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Engineering giant CH2M Hill Cos. Ltd., an employee-owned firm with about $5 billion in annual revenue, has received a “small-but-noteworthy” contract of $6 million under the U.S. Solar America Initiative to provide raw data on solar-power potential, reported. The contract will pay the expansion of the city of San Francisco's recently posted solar energy map. It will use advanced 3-D modeling and aerial imagery and will be available for public access through a special Web portal.

Punching an address into the city's search engine pulls up data on the estimated amount of solar photovoltaic energy that could be installed on a specific roof. Additional available data includes the potential electricity-cost reduction and the potential reduction in dioxide/greenhouse gases, the company said.

The Web site also provides information on installing a photovoltaic system, including contact information for local solar installers.

David Herrmann, CH2M Hill’s director of client solutions, said the mapping program could potentially replace the current method of assessing solar energy potential.

“Right now, to get a solar assessment on a roof, you have to call up the solar installer, they bring their ladder, a guy wanders around on your roof, and two or three weeks later you get a report,” Herrmann told MarketWatch. “With this technology, you could do it accurately and quickly without having to roll a truck.”

Herrmann said the company's solar maps use a format from Google Inc.’s (GOOG) Google Maps to display the data, but that CH2M Hill collects the images through its own proprietary process with Esri Inc. – A Redlands, Calif.-based company that’s recognized as a leader in geographic information systems (GIS) also supplying technology for the effort.

The solar map is also compatible with the Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) Virtual Earth display, he said.

Herrmann said the Internet-mapping business remains healthy, with companies routinely paying for airplane flyovers to provide panoramic shots of streets and buildings all across the United States.

The 25 cities for which this service will be available will include: Denver, Houston, Philadelphia, San Jose, Calif.; Santa Rosa, Calif.; Seattle; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Austin, Tex.; Berkeley, Calif.; Boston, New Orleans, New York City and Tucson, Ariz.

Also, advances in technology have made solar cell production even more eco-friendly. A recent study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., found that for each unit of energy produced by solar cells, the pollution that’s emitted during the cells’ manufacture is only 2% to 11% the amount produced by power plants in the United States and Europe.

In fact, newly developed solar cells can "pay back" the energy required for their production in just one to three years. And improvements in manufacturing efficiency could reduce emissions from solar power by another 50% in five to 10 years, according to a recent report by
Money Morning.

There have been tremendous advances in the production and efficiency of solar technologies. And those advances couldn’t have come at a better time. Political support for the industry is at an all-time high as oil prices and environmental awareness both continue to rise.

The Englewood, Colo.-based CH2M Hill has 23,000 employees and ranked 54 on Fortune magazine’s 11th annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, a ranking that was published in late January. It’s the third time the company has ranked among those top-tier companies. CH2M Hill has also been recognized as a “Most Admired Company” by Fortune for the past five years.

CH2M HILL has been repeatedly recognized for its competitive compensation-and-benefits packages, employee ownership, and reputation for landing challenging projects, some the most recent include:

  • Program management for the seven-year, $5 billion expansion of the Panama Canal.
  • Overseeing the design and construction of the venues and infrastructure for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.
  • The engineering and construction of the Xcel Energy Inc.’s (XEL) 580-megawatt gas-fired High Bridge Power Plant near St. Paul, Minn.
  • Providing program management consulting services for the $2 billion improvement program for India’s Mumbai airport.
  • Engineering services for the Southern Seas Desalination Plant in Perth, Australia, which will use “green” energy to supply 20% of that city’s water needs.
  • Managing a $10 billion military-base-relocation program for the U.S. and South Korean governments

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