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BIPV Market Gaining Traction

Similar to the way that the smart grid reflects the combination of energy management and information technology, building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) is the marriage of 3 industries that so far have only worked together in marginal ways: architectural design, renewable energy, and building products.

Whenever you approach an industry from a different perspective, that’s when you produce very interesting products, said JD Albert of SRS Energy.  SRS produces curved roofing tiles made of PV that are designed to fit into the mission-style architecture of the southwestern region of the U.S.  Curved red clay roof tiles there are modeled after the Mediterranean roof styles found in Spain and elsewhere. 

SRS Energy has roots in the roofing industry and saw the need for PV that would fully integrate – easily – into the roofs of these types of houses.  Since the region where houses with these types of roofs proliferate happens to be in areas of the world with the greatest amount of solar insolation, the combination of curved roofing tiles and PV should go far.  Albert said that SRS really views itself as a building product provider as opposed to a PV provider.

Solving two problems with one solution is a concept that is echoed by Pythagoras Solar, a company that makes double pane glass windows that incorporate PV and can generate renewable energy while also letting light through. The product is generally used as a building façade in large office buildings. BIPV has a real opportunity to add more value to solar, said Brendan Dillon, product manager for Pythagoras Solar.  And providing more value, in an integrated roof tile or a glass window that also increases building efficiency is what will eventually lead to cost reductions in the BIPV market.

Roland Schindler of the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems based in Cambridge, MA thinks that the number one issue the BIPV industry should be concerned with right now is cost.  “Aesthetics and cost,” he said.  We have to look at the entire energy consumption of the house or building, he explained, and then see where the BIPV product fits in. 

Still Far From Adoption

In Germany, the world’s biggest solar market, BIPV still only makes up about 2% of installed product so the industry still has a ways to go in order to increase uptake. (Left, a 1662 German farmhouse that was renovated in the 80's is the earliest example of BIPV in the country. Credit: Fraunhofer)

SRS Energy’s Albert views certification and standardization as a big factor in helping the industry gain market share.  While in the U.S., there is a BIPV standard, albeit still young, in Europe there isn’t one, he said.  Add to that the fact that each European country may have its own set of certification standards and tests for a BIPV product. “This is a big problem. You can go to Europe and, for one product, end up doing 4 different fire tests to go into 12 different countries,” he explained. “And also how much can you change a product and not have to re-certify?”

Not having one standard that is uniformly accepted costs the industry hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.  And there are long lead times to get a product certified.  “For us, certifying is a multi-hundred-thousand dollar activity,” Albert said.

It also makes sense to certify installers of BIPV systems, Albert said.  Whereas SRS roof tiles are designed to be easily installed by roofers, in many parts of the country, roofers wouldn’t be allowed to perform installations unless they are also licensed electricians.

Since BIPV is more of a product for the construction industry, which is experiencing a slump right now, Pythagoras Solar’s Dillon said that construction companies could differentiate themselves in the industry by incorporating more BIPV or at least learning how to use it.  Green building and BIPV are segments of the market that are growing right now, even though construction as a whole is declining, he said.

And while new construction that incorporates BIPV certainly offers that “wow factor,” (see the lead image to this story) the BIPV industry would be remiss if it didn’t focus on retrofits.  “I think here in the U.S. the retrofit market is really dominating,” Fraunhofer’s Schindler said.

“Just focusing on new construction is a challenge,” said Albert, “because clearly there are millions and millions of existing buildings and construction is very slow right now.”

Future Growth is Expected

Roland Schindler pointed out in a presentation that in some regions of the world, more emphasis is being placed on energy net-zero or net-positive construction.  For example in France by 2020, all new buildings must be energy positive, meaning that they will generate more energy than they use.  Energy net-zero or net-positive construction will by definition incorporate more BIPV as developers will be forced to incorporate as much energy generation into the building façade as possible.  France also has a very high BIPV-specific feed-in tariff.

France of course is not alone.  Most of the EU is requiring that new construction be at least energy neutral by 2020 and countries such as Germany, the UK and Ireland, like France, are requiring new buildings to be energy positive by 2020.

Overall, Schindler believes that there is unlimited potential for BIPV both in space and demand.  They just need to get the costs down or figure out how to add value to an existing product, something SRS Energy and Pythagoras Solar have taken to heart.

Dillon of Pythagoras explained it this way: “It’s taken companies like SRS and Pythagoras and others to really design, from the beginning, a building material that also has PV so that roofers, glaziers, other construction trades can seamless integrate this into their current processes.”

To listen to a discussion I had with Brendan Dillon, JD Albert and Roland Schindler, play the video below.


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