Building-integrated photovoltaics

Author: Daniel Burgess

Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs), photovoltaic cells, and thin-film solar cells are integral components of a building. Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) simultaneously serve conventional structural functions—exteriors, windows, or rooftops—while generating electricity. They are generally superior to photovoltaic arrays (solar arrays) mounted on existing building surfaces since they maximize the surface area used to generate solar power. BIPVs provide an ancillary or even principal source of electrical power, greatly reducing or even eliminating the building’s need for power from the electrical grid.

In the 1970s, solar arrays were installed on domestic and commercial rooftops for the first time, mostly in the United States. Those systems were neither common nor efficient. Most solar arrays were used in isolated areas where electricity from the grid was unavailable. The 1980s saw improvements in efficiency and a reduction in the cost of photovoltaic systems, and solar arrays began to appear more widely on rooftops in cities and suburbs, primarily in developed countries such as the United States and Germany. Photovoltaic materials were first integrated with building facades and rooftops in the 1990s.

BIPV systems have four main components: facades, glazing, pitched roofs, and flat roofs. Facades can be made as photovoltaic materials directly integrated with the building material or as a photovoltaic outer layer. Glazing is the direct integration of photovoltaics with transparent surfaces, such as glass windows. BIPVs on pitched roofs can take the form of solar modules that function as roof tiles. The benefits of such “solar shingles” include extending a normal roof’s life by protecting the roof and insulating the building from ultraviolet rays and water damage. A BIPV system on a flat rooftop usually is a flexible thin-film solar layer, which takes the place of conventional flat-roof materials, such as bitumen or rubber.

BIPV systems have enormous potential when all possible surface areas from domestic roofs to high-rise glass facades are considered. A 2011 assessment of BIPVs by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) stated, however, that significant technical challenges needed to be overcome before the cost of installing BIPVs would be competitive with more traditional photovoltaic panels.

Despite the technical challenges and high cost associated with combining standard building materials with efficient photovoltaic elements, the demand for BIPVs was on the rise in the 21st century, as was the need for efficient and economical renewable energy solutions. NREL predicted that BIPVs would eventually overtake traditional photovoltaics and that continued integration was leading to solar products that could fully replace traditional building materials.

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