Decoding Design

Will building-integrated solar take off?

Will building-integrated solar take off?

Posting in Energy

A new report says the technology shows great promise, but the solar industry needs to start thinking like builders and architects.

The solar industry has been taking a beating in recent months, thanks to falling costs and falling trust in the industry, a'la Solyndra. But a new report from Pike Research examines whether building-integrated photovoltaics -- that is, energy-generating solar cells integrated into windows and other building facades -- might infuse the solar industry with new energy.

The report examines the "demand drivers and economics, technology issues, and key industry players" for both building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) and building-applied photovoltaics (BAPV), which refers to panels integrated into building facades retroactively. It concludes that BIPV is one of the fastest-growing industry sectors, globally.

In the United States the technology is coming along quite slowly, however, especially compared to BIPV hotspots in Western Europe. One reason for slow adoption, says Paula Mints, the principal analyst for the solar services program at Navigant, Pike's parent company, is how BIPV vendors are approaching customers.

"Essentially the way the industry wants to move is toward a green building philosophy. They want PV integrated into buildings because distributed generation is seen as the backbone of solar industry and will really start to change things if buildings can become self-sustaining. The problem has been that as an industry we don’t understand how architects and builders think, and what kind of products they want."

Once the industry begins to better communicate BIPV and BAPV cost and benefits in terms that the building industry can relate to, she concludes, the technology will get a better foothold in the U.S.

"Forget the building buyers," she says. "We need to reach the architects and builders."

But miscommunication isn't the only barrier. Transparency -- or more accurately, a lack thereof -- is another sticky wicket when it comes to solar-integrated windows. The better BIPV windows are at generating energy, the less transparent they tend to be. That's starting to change and the technology is improving all the time. But for now, it's still seen as a trade-off. Mints says once way to address this is to place less transparent glazing in parts of the building that have generous sun exposure but not aren't especially important in terms of outside views.

Researchers at UCLA recently announced a significant improvement in the transparency of a thin film solar panels, but it lost 30 percent of the solar cell's energy-absorbing capacity in the process.

Image: Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon

[Disclosure: I previously contributed marketing copy to BIPV vendor Pythagoras Solar. I am no longer doing so.]

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure