What comes after solar PV? BIPV

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Regardless of whether and how they are subsidized, solar photovoltaics (PVs) panels are gaining in popularity around the world, found on increasing number of roofs in sunny and even not so sunny countries. They continue to be installed in significant numbers even in places where they get little credit for any net generation into the network, as in Queensland, Australia. In such cases, customers adjust the size of the installations mostly for self-consumption.


Photos courtesy of Flexible Electronics Lab, CSIRO Manufacturing Flagship, Clayton, VIC, Australia

Traditionally, a customer with an existing roof would call a contractor to install them, paying out of pocket, or increasingly leasing them with little or no upfront investment. The result is generally an ugly, incongruous after thought, and an expensive one at that. Many roofs have protruding chimneys and other obstacles resulting in panels distributed in odd and unpleasant patterns. Other roofs are in wrong angles to the sun or shaded by neighbours‘ houses or trees, making them unsuitable for solar PVs.

rsz_screen_shot_2016-01-29_at_10332_pmToday, an increasing number of architects and engineers are designing individual houses and entire subdivisions with solar panels in mind. The same goes for many commercial buildings, especially warehouses, parking garages, office buildings, shopping malls, airports, train stations – anything with large flat roofs. Including solar panels at the time the roof is being built reduces installation costs substantially, by some estimates as much as 20%.

But why build a roof and then add solar panels on the roof? Why not simply make the roof and the solar panels the one and the same? It would make the building far more aesthetically pleasing.

Going a step further, sun does not simply shine on a building‘s roof but also on the sides, especially the rsz_screen_shot_2016-01-29_at_11005_pmside facing the afternoon sun. With the cost of solar panels falling, it does not take much to cover the sunny exteriors of buildings with panels.

Moreover, solar panels now come in all shapes and forms, some resemble windows, allowing light to get through. They can be applied to any surface, flat, curved, or otherwise, offering architects and engineers more flexibility and versatility to virtually integrate them into the exterior design of buildings – which is broadly referred to as building integrated PVs, or BIPVs.

In the last couple of years, a number of new and some refurbished old buildings have appeared with such integrated designs, and by and large, they are stunningly more beautiful than haphazardly adding a few solar panels to an existing roof.

Today‘s BIPVs tend to be more expensive than traditional buildings, but save energy over time. The payback can be expected to drop just as did with expensive light emitting diodes (LEDs) of yesteryears, now virtually commonplace in most new buildings.

rsz_screen_shot_2016-01-29_at_11125_pmImagine future skyscrapers, warehouses, office buildings and shopping malls generating more energy than they consume, acting as decentralized power plants within major load centers.

Fantasy? Not according to researchers who are advancing the state of the art, moving the technology to the marketplace. This editor recently visited one such laboratory operated by Australia‘s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) where many of the visuals in this article came from. Under CSIRO‘s Manufacturing Flagship project, researchers aim to not only advance manufacturing processes, but reduce the costs and performance of panels that can literally be rolled off an assembly machine like a plastic wrapper.

Another stunning example of BIPVs can be found at roof of London‘s recently refurbished Kings Cross Train Station (photos below, exterior on left, interior roof on right). Not many passengers are even aware of the solar panels embedded in the station‘s glass roof, but there they are.

The station, built during Queen Victoria‘s reign, is still in use, over a century later.


Which goes to show that buildings generally last a very long time, especially if they are solidly built. Which goes to say that investing a little extra to make them more functional, more energy efficient and more elegant is likely to pay off, sooner or later.

Perry Sioshansi is president of Menlo Energy Economics, a consultancy based in San Francisco, CA and editor/publisher of EEnergy Informer, a monthly newsletter with international circulation. He can be reached at [email protected]


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  • Graeme Henchel

    This Australian company has developed PV integrated roof tiles. They currently are floating on the ASX. I have no interest in the company but thought those reading this article may be interested in this company.

  • Adriano Munoz

    Onyx Solar is the leading company in the BIPV market, since they have participated in more than 60 projects in 20 countries. I recommend you to have a look at their catalogue of projects. They have really cool pictures!

  • Mike Dill

    I agree that the integrated roof will happen, and sooner than most expect. The current issue is durability. I EXPECT that I can walk on my roof. I am not sure that I could walk on most solar PV system modules.

  • Jens Stubbe

    I made a report about that subject in the nineties and proved the economic viability then so the case has just gotten better and better. (The viability was based upon net meter agreement).

    Our design coupled solar thermal and PV and ventilation. The major roofing company in Denmark decided to run from an agreement and brought in another supplier that they preferred and even patented our ideas. I was only the project manager and one of the inventors and my bosses did not want to sue because as industrial designers you depend on customer trust that has to go both ways.

    A friend of mine is now working with the original ideas in his company that combine ground heat pumps too into the mix. They target 10 year payback time for the entire system if it is for new houses and 12+ for retrofit.

  • Lawrence Coomber

    BIPV technology products are already obsolescent and won’t continue to attract any serious global investment in the foreseeable future in my estimation.

    That seems like a big call out of seemingly nowhere but the global energy products research and development sector are moving forward rapidly with new PV science unfolding that will consign a vast array of dubious commercial viability boutique BIPV products being discussed to the “it seemed like a good idea at the time” repository.

    Energy dense Stage 4 solar PV products will soon be commercialized after at least a 5 year global R & D effort that I have followed closely, and these products will quickly kill off marginal PV technology products and BIPV is certainly in that category.

    The next stage of solar PV science development addresses the
    two major sticking points inherent in current PV technology designs, namely:

    [1] how to repackage the science of solar PV technology in a format that will massively reduce the unsustainable and rising cost of labor, installation infrastructure, and space requirements, in deploying PV systems of any scale, and;

    [2] how to create “energy dense PV science” in volumetric format designs that efficiently communicate with light, rather than the hitherto inefficient performance and labor intensive to deploy, flat area panel format.

    Lawrence Coomber