Technology Profile - Solar
The recent evolution of solar technology makes the future bright for homeowners and the design-build community.
BY jason takahashi
THE APOLLO II TILE FROM CERTAINTEED IS RATED TO WITHSTAND OPERATING TEMPERATURES
OF -40 TO 90 C AND HIGH VELOCITY WINDS OF UP TO 194 MPH.
THE SOLAR WINDS ARE STARTING TO SHIFT AGAIN, and no, I’m not talking about the extensive cyber-attack carried out as 2020 came to a close. Rather, the rapid proliferation of solar energy that took a back seat to traditional fossil fuels over the past four years is set to sail again. With the United States resuming its position as a leader in the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and major clean energy jobs and infrastructure legislation in the works, solar energy is well positioned to take a leading role in the decentralized search for reliable, clean and effective energy in 2021 and beyond. What is perhaps most exciting for architects, designers, builders and ultimately homeowners, is the recent evolution of solar technology that makes the future appear particularly bright.
Just as televisions evolved from tubes to flat panels to today’s chameleon-like OLEDs, solar panels are similarly finding ways to hide themselves in plain sight. As they often do, Tesla stole the headlines in 2016 with the release of their integrated solar roof tile system shortly after acquiring SolarCity. But four years and three iterations later, the company is still struggling to scale their manufacturing and installation capabilities to meet nationwide demand. Luckily, the Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) sector beyond Tesla (and the continental U.S.) is still moving ahead. And with demand for new builds continuing to grow, finding ways to couple construction with solar cells is a proper approach.
The advantage of solar roofs and other BIPV setups over traditional systems is primarily aesthetic. Slick solar lined roofs and other façades negate the need for large, unfavorable rooftop panel arrays by weaving light-converting technology into the tiles, shingles and siding. This is particularly enticing with new builds, but also when thinking about replacing an entire roof, where combining costs can generate supplemental savings. While the overall scope of products available is still limited, here’s a quick look at some of the best options on the market today.
MICHIGAN-BASED LUMA SOLAR'SINTEGRATED ROOFTOP SHINGLE SYSTEM
If you’re seeking a tested roofing solution within the U.S., I’d start with taking a look at Certainteed’s Apollo Tile II. The Pennsylvania-based member of the Saint-Gobain conglomerate is perhaps the antithesis to some of the failed startups in this sector. Certainteed has been innovating building materials for more than a century, now working to achieve the dream of ‘making sustainable habitats a reality’. Of the half-dozen or so solar tiles and shingles currently available in the U.S., Certainteed is a reliable option thanks to a strong reputation among builders and a robust installer network. While the Apollo II tile is not an entirely incognito solution, depending on the color of your other roof tiles — high-quality aesthetics are still achievable. Furthermore, the monocrystalline modules are water tight, featuring raised fastener locations to provide added protection against intrusion. Lastly, Apollo II is rated to withstand operating temperatures of -40 to 90 C and high velocity winds of up to 194 MPH. Certainteed’s century of experience in roofing helps provide peace of mind, while delivering up to 70W of electricity per tile in the process.
Another exciting contender in this space is Michigan-based Luma Solar. Visually speaking, Luma’s latest installations lead the pack with its luxurious integrated rooftop shingle system, which they call the ‘only upgradable’ solar shingle system in the world. With three different packages to choose from, the highest-end Mirage Collection sports black monocrystalline cells with a minimum of 75W per shingle, with power monitoring, upgradeability and hurricane ratings to boot. For those interested, reservations are required. Luma recommends ordering a Base Study to bring in one of their consultants to assess the property and outline the best possible setup for your home or business, before partnering with a local installer to complete the project.
EXASUN'S X-ROOF IS EQUIPPED WITH REAR CONTACT CELLS AND GLASS-PANEL TECHNOLOGY THAT SHOULD DELIVER HIGH EFFICIENCY YIELDS FOR 30 YEARS.
Solstex is the photovoltaic (PV) member of the Elemex building façades family. Headquartered in Ontario, Elemex specializes in ceramic, aluminum and stone exterior cladding surfaces, which fortify the elegant exteriors of celebrated buildings across Canada and beyond. While their products are not a natural first choice for a residential exterior design, it does provide an opportunity to imagine how PV technology embedded into modern siding might find their way into future trends.
The panels come in two different sizes, delivering 110 - 122.5W and 420 - 450W respectively, each with a quarter-inch thickness. They can be seamlessly integrated to any of Elemex’s other products thanks to their proprietary Unity attachment technology. Unity is engineered to create an ecosystem in which all of Elemex’s exterior cladding surfaces can combine to create all-in-one superior façade systems. Weighing at approximately 3.5 pounds per square foot, the Solstex panel consists of a thin-film Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) solar technology housed between two sheets of heat-strengthened glass. While sometimes less efficient than crystalline silicon systems, thin-film CdTe cells have made major strides in recent years, thanks in part to research and development from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). NREL has produced outstanding solar efficiency results in lab settings using CdTe, and other benefits include the smallest carbon footprint and lowest water usage during manufacturing, as well as the ability to achieve light-weight, large format designs that help maximize facade coverage and energy production.
ELEMEX SPECIALIZES IN CERAMIC, ALUMINUM AND STONE EXTERIOR CLADDING SURFACES
If asked who is leading the solar revolution, you wouldn’t be at fault to assume North America. In 1954, Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson developed the first silicon cell capable of powering everyday electrical equipment via sunlight at Bell Labs, making the U.S. the original home of solar energy. Canada has produced some photovoltaic powerhouses as well, with Canadian Solar Inc. continually topping growth and revenue charts in the sector. Similarly, no one would bat an eye if you guessed Asia. It’s certainly likely that heavy hitting titans like LG, Kyocera, Panasonic and JinkoSolar are riding furthest ahead out on the edge of the solar wave. If not, then they are at least leading the manufacturing front by a country kilometer. Fascinatingly though, I would argue it is neither. For me, the future of solar is blooming in none other than one of Europe’s most notoriously creative culture centers: the Netherlands.
In 1974, Dutch footballer Johan Cryuff carried the small European nation to the World Cup final in West Germany, introducing their concept of total football onto the world stage. Like a jazz band where members are capable of rotating instruments, the 1974 squad centered positional versatility among all its outfield players in its vision of the game. The result was an astonishing second place finish, a Golden Boot (best player) award for Cryuff, and a legacy that carries on in the highest levels of the sport today. The contemporary solar equivalent to this approach is Exasun. Headquartered in The Hague, Exasun is a design, manufacturing and installation company with a firm grasp on all the BIPV technologies we’ve discussed, coupled with a compelling vision for the future sustainability of the field. Through learning how to play all the positions, Exasun has developed a total solar approach that could serve as a model for all solar manufacturers moving forward.
Products like their X-Roof have the potential of approaching residential mainstream adoption at a far greater pace than anything we are seeing in the U.S. today. When glancing through their past projects, you immediately get the sense that this type of integration is not only ingenious, but inevitable. It’s not the typical photo of a single luxury home or eco retreat with gorgeous solar tiles glistening by the coast. Rather, they feature blocks of multi-family housing in urban areas, elegant modern farmhouses in the countryside, and stunning solar façades that sweep across commercial structures. Exasun still offers standard-style PV panels (X-Glass), but are making waves with their new X-Roof design, specifically engineered for slanted roofs. X-Roof is equipped with rear contact cells and glass-panel technology that should deliver high efficiency yields for 30 years. Similarly, they also offer their own façade system and are preparing to launch X-Tile, which could feature a terracotta design that debuted at RAI Amsterdam in 2019. X-Tile is expected to debut in Q2 2021.
To top it all off, Exasun is developing innovative offsets for the less beneficial side-effects of renewable energy. They were ahead of the pack in taking steps to eliminate many of the unnecessary toxins, such as lead, fluorine and cadmium, used in most solar panels today. On top of their 30-year warranty, their new cradle-to-cradle solution makes 90 percent recyclability of panels a possibility through dismantling at the part level for replacement, recycling and reuse. This future-minded approach is only going to help the renewable sector avoid repeating the mistakes of its predecessors, while allowing the company to keep up with the increasingly stricter new building efficiency regulations being put into practice by the Dutch government, as well as the EU.
While cloudy days always still lie ahead, the 10-year solar forecast is remarkably bright. This can only be enhanced by taking a total solar approach to new building development, and engaging public and private interest in establishing new guidelines for new construction. Designing future-proofed solutions to limit negative impacts from the manufacturing cycle will hopefully encourage local production and more sustainable practices to maximize emissions offsets. Finally, transforming the future of energy is a collective effort reminiscent of landing a new rover on Mars, with the potential of helping to ensure our future residency on the Earth.