Total and Google Cloud are enthusiastically sharing that they have pooled their expertise and created a tool called Solar Mapper. With this tool, they aim to “accelerate the deployment of solar panels for individuals (B2C) by providing an accurate and rapid estimate of the solar energy potential of their homes.” It plans to start out this service in Europe, but then expand around the globe.
Data quality of 🛰️ images
Sharpness of the estimation of the🌞potential
Global 🌎rate of territorial coverage
Relevance of the tech👩💻to be installed
— Total (@Total) October 13, 2020
Solar Mapper — Is This New?
My first thought was, “Some solar companies were doing this a decade ago.” I recall basically the same PR pitches from a couple of solar startups approximately 10 years ago. So, is this just rehashed PR from a major oil & gas company that is trying to find some inroads in the cleantech world?
I can’t say for certain since I don’t know the technologies — and what they output — super well. However, the claim is that the hardware and software that enable this have gotten much better and Total is tapping into the best of the best. That may be the case. I don’t know. This is how they put it:
“Solar Mapper uses brand-new artificial intelligence algorithms that provide better results than current tools, especially by improving:
- The quality of the data extracted from satellite images;
- The sharpness of the estimation of the solar potential;
- The relevance of the technology to be installed;
- The global geographical coverage of the tool.”
I can say that, from this simple press release, they have addressed top areas where such services could be improved, so that does imply that they’ve brought the option to another level.
The Total crew drumming up interest in this new cleantech path for the traditionally fossil fuel company points out that Solar Mapper can be used effectively in more than 90% of France. This is “allowing many more people to assess the solar potential of their homes, with greater accuracy than before,” according to the French giant.
Total’s Ongoing Creep into Cleantech
As a reminder here, Total isn’t coming to solar power out of nowhere with this. The company has long been the majority shareholder of SunPower, one of the top solar panel manufacturers in the world and one of the top solar power providers in the United States. It has also invested in large solar farms in India and elsewhere, offshore wind power in Scotland, floating solar power, and more. So, I wouldn’t take any new investment or initiative as a fluff effort or naive. The company is one of the most cleantech focused oil & gas majors. The plan to start deploying this mapping tool in France and then expand globally is a potentially gigantic plan. For sure, one would think this tool would make its way over to SunPower’s repertoire.
“Solar Mapper is contributing to the Group’s ambition to become a world leader in the production of renewable energies, toward getting to net-zero emissions by 2050 together with society,” the company notes.
“Solar Mapper will enable Total to faster deploy solar panels on the houses’ roofs, in order to provide its customers with more affordable and more accessible solar energy,” explains Marie-Noëlle Séméria, Total’s Chief Technology Officer. “By combining Total’s expertise in solar energy with Google Cloud’s expertise in artificial intelligence and databases, we were able to develop an attractive and innovative offer together in just 6 months.”
This initial Solar Mapper rollout is for homes (B2C), but the company plans to also provide a B2B application of Solar Mapper. Stay tuned for news on that in the company months or years.
Total R&D + Other Cleantech Investments
Along with this news, Total wanted us to know that it’s an innovation leader, and that includes a lot of R&D into cleantech. “Total is deploying an ambitious R&D programme, worth nearly $1 billion a year. Total R&D relies on a network of more than 4,300 employees in 18 research centres around the world, as well as on numerous partnerships with universities, start-ups and industrial companies. Its investments are mainly devoted to a low-carbon energy mix (40%) as well as to digital, safety and the environment, operational efficiency and new products. It files more than 200 patents every year.”
We’ve covered Total many times. There are a variety of projects and companies I could list as examples of Total’s foray into cleantech. Here are just two that I found especially interesting and fun:
- Oil Company Total & Groupe PSA Form “Automotive Cells Company”
- Total & Gaussin Creating World’s 1st Fully Electric Aircraft Fuel Truck
Is the oil game over? Not yet, but we’re heading there.
Bringing Down Solar Costs
As far as the core aim of this new tool, it’s clearly to bring down costs. Bringing down the time and labor involved with scoping out a roof in person means lower costs for the solar installer, which can either mean a lower cost or higher profits. As I’ve written at length recently, solar panel prices have dropped dramatically in recent years. In fact, solar PV panels were 12× more expensive in 2010, and they were 459× more expensive in 1977, than they are today. However, that’s just the hardware.
The bigger challenge as solar PV panel costs have continuously come down has been bringing down “soft costs” — the non-hardware costs associated with rooftop solar power systems. Tesla has taken a couple of simple but effective approaches in the US: 1) it cut basically all marketing costs* except for its referral program (if you use a Tesla owner’s referral code when purchasing a Tesla solar power system, like mine — https://ts.la/zachary63404 — you get a $100 discount and I also get some cash) and 2) it nearly eliminated customization an just offers a few solar system sizes in order to cut down on the costs associated with examining a roof and custom designing a system. (*There are also some marketing materials in Tesla stores, but, to be honest, people come in to look at the cars and not much time or money is spent on selling solar; and Elon Musk of course spends a few moments once in a while to push Tesla solar on Twitter.) This approach from Total doesn’t cut marketing/customer acquisition costs, but it does cut down on the site visits and presumably saves money on designing a rooftop solar system ~100% virtually.
We’ll find out if this works well in the coming year or so when we see if Solar Mapper expands far and fast or fades away into the archives of CleanTechnica. If you are in France and learn more about the program or get a solar quote, let us know.
Featured image by SunPower