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Andrew Walz, a masters GIS student and Clean Energy Resource Team member

If you've thought about solar energy, you've probably wondered just how much power you can get from those big cells on your rooftop. Thanks to the University of Minnesota, there's an award-winning app for that.

The MN Solar Suitability Analysis application, created as a semesterlong project by a group of U of M students, measures the solar photovoltaic potential for each square meter of the state using Lidar (think radar, but with lasers, not radio waves) data and geographic information system (GIS) technology.

The application, which is available for use online, was created by the students as part of a joint project by the university and Clean Energy Resource Teams.

"I found a dream team of master's in GIS students," said Len Kne with U-Spatial at the University of Minnesota, a group that provides support for spatial research.

Andrew Walz, a masters GIS student and one of the team members, said the application provides a statewide analysis free to the public.

"We are both promoting the data resource as it was originally intended to be used, while also encouraging others to build on the progress we have made," Walz said.

The Web-based application can help homeowners identify the solar potential of their property, aid solar installers to efficiently provide site assessments, give energy companies the ability to find sites for large industrial arrays and help planners identify specific neighborhoods for targeted solar projects.

"We have received positive feedback from a solar installer who used the app to provide a more accurate estimate to potential customers," Walz said. "He was able to quickly determine whether to include an additional roof for a PV installation on a group of buildings."

While the app gives the solar potential of any specific square meter, the team plans to add a feature this fall that will allow users to draw polygons and determine the solar potential for entire areas such as rooftops, city blocks and even cities and counties.

While the app is specific to Minnesota, Walz said, it can be replicated for any area that has the Lidar data.

"Minnesota is one of the first states to have a statewide collect (of Lidar data)," Walz said. "Once the data is available, the app can also be adapted."

And while the app can be used in the field — it takes advantage of GPS technology to locate, say, a smartphone and pinpoint your location for analysis — the beauty is the app eliminates the need for someone to leave their office in order to get accurate assessments.

"It allows you to find your roof and test different spots from your couch," he said.

And thanks to winning an award — first place in the Climate Resilience App Challenge at the 2014 Esri User Conference — the app is getting support from around the country.

"Already we are receiving lots of inquires about uses we never imagined, like mapping roads to find sunny stretches where less road salt might be needed in winter, or studying the value of shaded stream banks in protecting cold-water-loving trout," Walz said. "The publicity is also helping us to raise funds to pay for software licenses, servers and other hosting feeds to keep the project going."

Brian Todd is a Rochester freelance writer.

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