Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Alongside every other building in Washington, D.C.
Last year, we wrote about a sweeping project from the MIT Sustainable Design Lab and the Boston design firm Modern Development Studio that mapped the potential for installing solar power on every square meter of every roof in Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT developed algorithms using public flyover LIDAR data to automatically assess each building's suitability – by location, angle and surroundings – for soaking up the sun's rays.
At the time, the tool looked like a replicable one that could change how we harvest solar power on a community scale. Now, the project's original creators have licensed their technology from MIT and launched a spinoff company, called Mapdwell, that intends to scale this up beyond Cambridge, even beyond solar surveys. A similar and slick interactive platform, they figure, could also educate homeowners and commercial building managers about their potential for other kinds of green roofs, or rainwater collection.
The project just tapped its second city, Washington, D.C. And similar solar maps in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and, abroad, in Chile, are due in the new year. Eduardo Berlin, the new company's CEO, says Mapdwell is also in talks with about 20 other cities, mostly in the U.S., to create something similar to this Washington platform:
As with the original Cambridge prototype, it's possible to click on individual buildings within Mapdwell to estimate the cost of building a solar system at that exact location, and the energy savings that would come from it (solar systems already in place in the city are also marked on the map). Washington, like Cambridge, is a low-lying city without the kind of tall skyscrapers that would obscure the sun in many neighborhoods. So there's a lot of potential here.
If we wanted to plaster the Supreme Court with solar panels, the south-facing side of the classical pediment would be the place to put them (bright yellow means good solar potential, brown means you'd be wasting your money):
(Zoom in on Mapdwell on the U.S. Capitol or White House and you'll get a slightly more distorted picture, thanks to security precautions built into the public data.)
Washington's otherwise famously boring, boxy federal architecture actually turns out to be a prime platform for solar power. This collection of government buildings south of the National Mall, known as a particularly drab neighborhood to walk through at street level, looks pretty good from above:
Now, you need this in your city (if for no other reason than that it will enable us to scientifically identify the solar-friendliest cities).