This 3d map shows you what 1.4 million solar installations looks like

(It's pretty cool.)

You’ve heard about the revolution in solar, how plummeting prices means that so many people are now choosing to put solar panels on their homes and generate their own green electricity. But what does that really look like?

Well, it looks like our map! Using data from the Open PV project at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, we plotted a three-dimensional map that shows the number of residential solar installations down to the zip code level. Not only is it pretty cool to look at (we think) but you can immediately get some interesting insights out of it.

View the map directly

You can view the map directly, which is interactive and lets you pan and zoom. (Use your scroll wheel or trackpad scroll to zoom in and out.) Warning: about 21,000 data points are placed onto the map, and the whole thing is rendered in your browser. If your machine is a little older, this might take awhile.

About the data

First though, let’s talk about the data. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory produces the annual report Tracking the Sun which is essential research into the state of the distributed solar market in the US. As part of that work, they collect data about individual solar installations from state agencies, utilities, and other organizations.

In addition, the Open PV project at NREL runs a program that aggregates this together with community-contributed data, which they make available and viewable on their website.

These two data sources together give us a detailed picture at zip code resolution about the number of solar PV installs, their capacity, pricing, and other interesting metrics. We’ll be featuring other visualizations based on those data in future posts.

Some caveats: this data collection is voluntary, and gaps in data may not reflect an absense of solar PV activity in the marketplace, but instead a gap in the data sample. Nonetheless, the overall picture is accurate, from which we can get some useful insights.

Reading the map

Each green bar represents a zip code that has solar installations. A bar is 5 kilomters square, and the height corresponds to the number of residential solar installations in that zip, with each install adding 250 meters in height.

Climate is less of a factor than you think

One of the myths about solar power in the United States is that it can work only in the sunniest states. In fact, driven in large part by plummeting hardware costs, solar can be successfully deployed almost anywhere. In fact, if you pan north on the map, you can see solar installations even in Alaska.

Solar deployments in the Northeast
In pro-solar states, deployments correspond to population density

While the map shows large clusters of pv in the places you would expect, especially California and Arizona, the next largest clusters are in the Northeast.

Policy is the biggest driver of home solar

That there are massive deployments of solar in California and the Northeast but relatively sparse deployments in some sunny southeast states such as Utah starkly shows the effect of pro-solar policies such as direct incentives and net metering.

Solar deployments in the southwest
There really should be more solar here

In addition to a lack of direct support, solar also faces an unfavorable playing field when local policy drives down the cost of electricity generated from fossil fuels, either through direct subsidies or indirect subsidies such as lax pollution enforcement. This is reflected on the map in the relatively few installations in the south.

Still, things are slowly to change, such as with the recent ruling that allowed solar leasing in Florida.

Electricity prices matter

In the Northwest, despite a reputation for rain and clouds, Washington and Oregon receive about as much sunshine as states in the Northeast that have a lot of installed solar. So why so few pv homeowners?

Solar deployments in the Northwest
It’s cool, we have hydro

Cheap electricity. Hydropower is the largest source of electricity in Washington and Oregon, and a result costs are among the lowest - Washington actually has the cheapest electricity rates in the nation.

Plenty of room for growth

The density of installations mirrors the population density, and you can see this in the high bars in the cities of California. But other high population areas such as the Northeast, Southern states, and Midwest have plenty of room for growth.

This means that if we continue to promote solar through progressive policies, and technological and market forces continue to drive costs down, the residential solar industry has plenty of room to grow.

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