How do you solve some of the solar industry’s most pressing problems? Bring together coders, designers, and business minds, mix them with copious amounts of caffeine, and see what emerges in 48 hours. That’s what’s known as a hackathon, and at a recent solar hackathon, Sunible won the Technical Accomplishment award.
By Dhanur Grandhi
Originally posted on Sunible
Hackathons are the real deal. They bring coders, designers, and business minds together to build tech-based solutions to real world problems. In 24 to 48 hours, assisted by copious amounts of caffeine. Some hackathon teams give up before showtime, but some go on to become high-value startups.
The solar industry has an interesting set of problems that needs solving, and that was exactly the point of last week’s Solar Hackathon. Hosted by the SFUNCube, the hackathon brought together several teams for a weekend of coding mayhem. Teams included people from across the Bay Area, New York, and — here’s where it got serious — Germany and the Netherlands. There are three things everyone needs to know about the SFUNCube – it is the world’s first solar incubator, it is the world’s only solar incubator, and it is home to the world’s most amazing office space. (Disclosure: Sunible is a resident of the SfunCube!)
On the judging panel: Jennifer Granholm (former Governor of Michigan), Chris Martin (VP Engineering @ Pandora), and Brandon Hurlbut (former Chief of Staff @ the U.S. Department of Energy). Jennifer signed Michigan’s solar-focused Renewable Portfolio Standard in 2008, Chris is an active solar industry observer, and Brandon had the ear of Energy Secretary Steven Chu for four years. So yes, it got really serious.
Sunible was there. And we won the Technical Accomplishment award. Joining me on my team were two amazing coders who were inspired by Sunible’s vision to make solar simple. Nathaniel Wreblowski is a chemistry major who has published a cure for malaria, and Kenneth Rettberg is a trombonist who has taught middle-school music for seven years. The fact that these guys have been coding (and I, designing) for less than six months made the victory even more satisfying.
So what was our idea? WattSun.
WattSun is a hack that uses public data, free APIs, and an intuitive user interface to do something that has never been done before: make solar discovery ridiculously simple. What is solar discovery, you ask? We think of solar discovery as two things:
- Letting people see all the solar homes around them on a map. This “social proof” is important because although everyone knows what a solar panel is, not everyone knows how popular solar is. And boy, is it popular — over 440 zip codes in California have at least 100 solar homes each. Social proof also addresses some of the most common concerns that delay people from considering solar seriously: Does solar really work? Does solar work where I live? Can I afford it? Should I wait until more people go solar? You get the idea. Given that neighborhood solar is contagious, WattSun’s social proof feature makes it easier for people to catch the bug.
- Making it easy for people to estimate their solar savings. This is important because, again, everyone knows what a solar panel is, but not everyone knows that a solar-powered home can save you tens of thousands of dollars. Sure, there are dozens of calculators on the Internet, but none of them easy enough for the the average Bob and Jane to figure out.
Residential solar is gaining momentum. We’re inching toward half a million solar homes in the U.S., and we’re seeing a new solar system every four minutes. But like any technology, solar needs to cross the chasm. And at Sunible, we think one way to do that is to make it ridiculously simple for people to discover solar.
Back to WattSun: the judges loved the idea! They agreed that it solved a real problem, that it was scalable and ready for market. The team at Sunible is excited about integrating some of WattSun’s code into our already ridiculously simple service that allows homeowners to compare and connect with solar installers in their area.
A quick shout out to all the other teams that participated in the Solar Hackathon. There were some brilliant ideas, including one that uses drones to conduct solar roof surveys and another that gamifies energy-efficient behavior using a $15 box that plugs into your smart meter. Solar needs more hackathons. And coders. And engineers. And designers. And problem solvers. If you fall into any of those categories and are wondering where to take your talent — well, do you want to build the next candy-based puzzle, or do you want to change the world?