A Building Focus on Solar Roof Tiles

Increasing consumer interest in roof-integrated solar tiles and the possibility that California’s groundbreaking Million Solar Roofs Initiative might pass later this summer are two key reasons why some of the solar industry’s biggest players were sure to be at last week’s Pacific Coast Builders Conference showing off their wares in the Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) market.

Many consumers and solar advocates could care less about whether their solar PV systems stand out. In fact, many might prefer it. But for those consumers who opt for a subtle look — and that could be a major new market — there are solar BIPV roof tiles. Rather than mounting separate solar panels on a rack on top of a roof, BIPV shingle designs interlock with roof tiles and shingles to provide an aesthetic, seamless look. General Electric, PowerLight, and Sharp were all displaying their versions of solar roof tiles at PCBC. PowerLight’s, however, was perhaps most noteworthy as their new SunTile product signaled their official entry into the residential solar PV market. Both GE and Sharp have had BIPV solar roof tiles and a focus on the residential market for some time. PowerLight, on the other hand, has made a strong name for themselves by spearheading large, double- and triple-digit kW projects predominantly in California but elsewhere in the U.S. and now abroad. The company has since been pushing into multi-MW projects with 3.1 MW project underway in Las Vegas, Nevada, and a giant 10 MW project in Bavaria, Germany. Through their solar tile offering, the residential market reflects a new avenue for the company. Sunnyvale, California-based SunPower Corporation will provide the solar PV for PowerLight’s tile systems and energy solutions provider, ConSol, will work with PowerLight to target the company’s solar tiles through the state’s Zero Energy New Homes (ZENH) initiative. GE Energy, paraded their solar tiles as a key part of the company’s new campaign dubbed “Ecomagination.” The initiative is aimed to aggressively bring to market new technologies that will help customers meet pressing environmental challenges. Under ecomagination, GE will invest $1.5 billion annually in research in cleaner technologies by 2010, up from $700 million in 2004. GE’s wind power division is also expected to play a major role in this initiative. The company’s roof-integrated tile modules won second place in the 4th annual “Cool Products Competition” at PCBC 2005 after results were tallied from 5,000 randomly selected PCBC attendees who judged the more than 125 entries. In addition to their solar tiles, the company revealed a new inverter, and new colors and design variations for its roof integrated solar tiles and modules. Also on display was Sharp Electronics, the veteran in the solar PV industry of the three. Sharp’s U.S. representatives were on hand to announce their new ND-60RU1 60-watt solar roof tile modules. These flat-panel roof modules are designed for new construction or refurbished roofs and offer the same seamless, aesthetic look as GE and PowerLight. Sharp’s new solar modules lay flat on the rooftop, interlocking smoothly with standard roof tiles for a smooth look. They are compatible with most shapes and sizes of roof tiles used in new residential construction, with one module replacing five standard concrete tiles. The modules are quick to install, screwing directly onto the existing roof battens so that no additional framing materials or roof penetrations are required. Like concrete tiles, they can be replaced individually without removing surrounding roofing material. Solar PV roof tiles, like the offerings from all three companies, are currently only a small niche of the solar PV industry. But it’s a growing market that’s sure to be characterized by more competition and more companies hoping to tap into this growing field.
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