06/26/2012 10:56 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

Data Analytics Could Play a Vital Role in Helping New York City Go Solar

New York City may seem an unlikely hot spot for solar energy, but think again. Consider the fact that there are 20 million square feet of usable solar farm space on top of the city's 1,100 public school roofs alone -- enough to generate 170,000 megawatts of electricity. So its no wonder that city government and business leaders are taking solar seriously.

Market forces are cooperating. Prices for solar panels are plummeting. But there remain some major impediments to solar adoption. All things considered, it's still more expensive than traditional energy sources.

That's where data analytics comes in. As part of the SMART NY, IBM is working with CUNY Ventures, a for-profit offshoot of the City University of New York, to create a system for gathering and analyzing information about the entire solar ecosystem within the city. The goal is to bring down the cost of installing solar. "We're looking to make solar competitive with other sources. We need to mainstream this technology to make it easy to adopt," says Tria Case, CUNY's director of sustainability and coordinator of SMART NY.

New York became a player in solar energy when it launched its first long-term solar strategy in 2007. Since then, the amount of photovoltaic capacity installed has increased by a factor of 8, to 8.8 megawatts. That's still a relatively small slice of the city's energy supply, but it's a start. Solar advocates believe the city could amass up to 70 megawatts of solar capacity in the next five years.

But for that to happen, the city has to help bring down the so-called "soft" costs. Those include financing, permitting and the incentives qualification process.

To achieve that goal, the city is using IBM's Intelligent Operations Center software to monitor and analyze solar production and capacity and display the data on a dashboard of key indicators. The information will be drawn from the NYC Solar Portal, which is an inter-agency permitting and tracking tool; data collection systems in the city's five solar empowerment zones, and the interactive NYC Solar Map, which businesses and citizens can use to size up their solar production potential and what it would cost to go solar. Case expects to be able to use insights gleaned from the dashboard to help streamline the permitting process and remove other barriers to adoption.

There's an important role for citizens in this project-both as consumers of solar energy and as potential generators of energy not only for their own use but for selling back into the electrical grid. They can also provide feedback via the NYC Solar Map Web site.

The plan is to refine the monitoring and analytics system over the next year and then extend it to all of New York. Ultimately, CUNY Ventures and IBM hope to be able to package the technology and sell it as a service to other municipalities around the United States.

Now, that would be a sustainable approach to sustainability.