February 2016

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Building with Sunshine

After decades in anticipation, the solar energy market has created a substantial and growing movement to integrate photovoltaics (PV) in buildings, where many of the building components and the solar energy production are one in the same.
Jim SinopoliJim Sinopoli PE,
Managing Principal,
Smart Buildings LLC

Contributing Editor

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Imagine building where the major components have photovoltaics embedded in the materials and products used in construction; the result being significant onsite production of solar power.

We’re all familiar with or have at least seen solar panels on a building roof or a parking canopy. The solar panels have really been the face of solar energy to date, although solar heat can provide energy as well. Integrating photovoltaics in a building is something completely different.

After decades of anticipation, the solar energy market has created a substantial and growing movement to integrate photovoltaics (PV) into buildings, where in many of the building components and the solar energy production are one in the same. The approach makes sense; solar energy in the building would generate power where it will be used so, and there is no need for any significant transmission or distribution. This eliminates any power losses and it is important to note integrating solar power in buildings doesn’t necessarily take up additional land or space.

Integrating solar cells into buildings focuses primarily on two aspects. One is the facade, which essentially is the building exterior. Facade systems include curtain walls (outer walls which are not structural), and spandrel panels (a wall between the head of a window and the sill of the window above in a buildings of two or more floors) and glazing. The use of buildings integrating PV in the building “skin” replaces the conventional envelope materials, thus reducing the cost of the integrated PV.

The roofing systemThe second aspect of integrated building solar energy is the roofing system. This includes tiles, shingles, standing seam products for steel roofs and skylights. For example there are now solar shingles which look like the traditional asphalt roof shingles, and metal roofing with 16% efficiency.

Besides solar facades or roofs there are innovative products such as walkable PV floors, transparent or colored PV glass, outdoor benches and tables. Even the development of solar-powered concrete is underway.

The integration of photovoltaic into buildings may have started with the research and development of “solar panel windows” as a solar collectors, which is now a reality and is in the market.  Wiring is embedded in the window frame and can provide direct current or be connected to a central power inverter to convert the direct current from the solar window to alternating current that is then fed into the electric panel for the building. This technology shows tremendous potential. Some of the current versions of photovoltaic windows can transmit more than 70% of the visible light, similar to tinted glass windows already in use. The power conversion for the initial design of the windows was low but has steadily improved. One research team calculated that even with 5% efficiency the windows could generate over 25% of the energy needs of a building. Besides energy generation, the windows could also reduce infrared radiation, thus reducing thermal loads and operational costs.

The Whole Building Design Guide (www.wbdg.org) states: “PV specialists and innovative designers in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. are now exploring creative ways of incorporating solar electricity into their work. A whole new vernacular of “Solar Electric Architecture” is beginning to emerge.”

It’s safe to say that integrating photovoltaics into buildings is innovative and will be disruptive for the traditional design and construction industry. If however the approach provides beneficial results, such as lower energy and construction costs, greater utility, scalability, and creativity, building owners and contractors may see it as an opportunity and be attracted to its potential. Integrating photovoltaic into the building will change the approach and aspects of building design, with a clear priority of maximizing solar energy products and materials that can produce a substantial return on the investment. 

It is one thing to install a solar panel, and quite another to construct a solar building. So designing and constructing such a building will require some re-educating and training of engineers, architects and contractors, as well as possibly alter job responsibilities, trades and skills.  One could expect that substantial professional industry associations could assist in developing design guidelines and training.

BIPVIntegrating solar into buildings makes sense for new construction where a building owner, related architect and engineers can plan and design the integrated PV. This is referred to as building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). Existing buildings integrating photovoltaics are referred to as building-applied photovoltaics (BAPV) and are likely to be more difficult. Whether the building is new or existing the architect, engineer or contractor has to evaluate a proposed design or the existing building related to solar access and identifying potential use of photovoltaic systems.

Other aspects of designing photovoltaic into the building involve the building’s location, its latitude, its structural aspects, nearby trees or buildings, shadowing, average temperatures onsite, etc. These factors must all be taken into account during the design stages where, the goal is to achieve the highest possible value for the BIPV systems.
The majority of buildings using solar power are connected to a larger utility grid because the opportunity of using solar power for the entire building may not be possible. The building owner can operate the integrated solar power independently but connectively with the grid provides a backup and could present an opportunity to sell power back to the utility. Both the building owner and the utility benefit with the grid being connected to BIPV. The on-site production of solar electricity is typically greatest near the time of a coinciding with the utility's peak loads. The solar contribution reduces energy costs for the building owner while the exported solar electricity can help the utility grid during the time of its greatest demand.

The primary disadvantage of solar power is that it clearly cannot be created at night or during times of cloud cover. Solar panel energy output is maximized when the panel is directly facing the sun. This means that fixed locations have a reduced energy production when the sun is not at an optimal angle, unlike the solar "farms" that mount PV panels on towers that can track the sun to keep the panels at optimal angles throughout the day.

Solar cells convert about 20% of the sun’s rays to electricity.  While solar power can be a substantial initial investment, there is minimum maintenance and after buying and installation it provides free energy. The capital cost of solar power, batteries and storage has continued to fall so that in many countries solar is cheaper than ordinary fossil fuel electricity from the grid. As the price of solar electricity continues to come down every year, more and more countries will benefit from making the switch to solar when new capacity is added. The development of ultra-thin, lightweight, and highly flexible solar solutions is key to the BIPV market.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]China, Japan, and the United States have accounted for the majority of new solar energy capacity with growth in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe particularly Germany. In 2014 solar power accounted for more than 55% of new investment in renewable power and fuels. Industry analyst firm n-tech Research predicts the total market for building-integrated solar photovoltaic (BIPV) systems will grow from about $3 billion in 2015 to over $9 billion in 2019, and surge to $26 billion by 2022, as more truly "integrated" BIPV products emerge that are monolithically integrated and multifunctional.

As the cost of solar goes down subsidies will likely disappear. Success of BIPV will provide opportunities and major changes, and create new BIPV businesses. Manufacturers and construction companies would likely partner. WBDG has suggested a need for a “solar energy architect” but a team of systems integrators, construction firms, installers, manufacturers and contractors will be needed.

BIPVInterestingly, some think the commercialization of BIPV should primarily emphasize aesthetics of the materials and products. Different colors of PV windows would allow some distinct and artistic aspects, but some may want the materials and products to look more traditional, an example being roof shingles. Solar panels on a roof of an old building can be an eye sore, so the aesthetics of BIPV may allow for more acceptance. With the PV being embedded in the materials and products no one really notices the PV aspects.  Smart aspects of BIPV could be automation related to energy, system integration, and building energy management systems.

Some of the other issues related to BIPV include the development of building codes and specific standards, economic incentives from local, state or federal governments, optimal system orientations, the service life of the products and materials, their durability and capability of withstanding the weathering process, cost, and performance.

The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will ever be obtained from all of the Earth's non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined. Successful deployment of BIPV, combined with energy efficiency initiatives, can lead us to the goal of net zero buildings.


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