The Power of Solar

With the cost of solar panels dropping by about 7 percent annually and an increase in the number of photovoltaic installations up 20 percent in 2006, solar system sales are through the roof, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. A 2007 Roper study supported by Sharp Electronics shows that almost 90 percent of Americans feel home builders should offer solar power as an option for all new home construction, a notable increase from 79 percent in 2006.

“More and more, consumers are interested in solar energy, as the results of this survey clearly show. The message from consumers to home builders is clear — builders can differentiate themselves while satisfying customer needs by offering solar electricity on any home they build,” says Ron Kenedi, vice president, Solar Energy Solutions Group, Sharp Electronics.

While solar panels have been around for a long time — the first solar cell was built in 1883 by Charles Fritts, after which NASA began the modern technology wave in the ’50s — it is only in recent years the demand has caused an impact in the residential sector.

Now that the days of not-so-attractive solar frames perched upon rooftops are gone, homeowners have begun to appreciate today’s stylish modules that seamlessly integrate into their roofs. While the concept generally has remained the same — an array of cells that convert energy from the sun into electrical energy — new advances in the design, manufacture and marketing process have allowed for a broad range of residential applications.

Developments in the variety of materials used to build solar cells also have had an effect on the market. The most commonly used material is single-crystalline silicon, which fills about 90 percent of solar demand; however, certain solar cells incorporate polycrystalline technology and are cheaper to produce, although efficiency is lower than that of the single-crystalline silicon. Manufacturers are developing thin-film modules that reduce the amount of light-absorbing material needed to build a solar cell. While less expensive in regard to production cost, these panels have lower energy conversion efficiency.

Motivation for Builders

Largely responsible for the boom in solar system installations are the strategic relationships between builders and manufacturers. In early 2007, BP Solar and Old Country Roofing, a large Northern California roofing company, teamed up to present solar roofing solutions to more than 100 home building companies, which can be beneficial to builders looking to offer solar power solutions to potential home buyers.

In a recent BP Solar statement, Aaron Nitzkin, vice president of solar operations at Old Country Roofing, says, “Our relationship with BP Solar will enable us to significantly expand our solar installations for both home builders and homeowners in Northern California [where 87 percent of all new solar-powered homes are built]. Solar modules have come a long way. They have morphed into a standardized, predictable, affordable roofing product.”

Not all builders and consumers are convinced of the benefits of integrating solar panels on existing or new-construction rooftops. Concerns with location, high costs and lack of education have plagued the solar power industry for years. Over the past two years, however, the manufacturers have flooded the market with sleek, trendy products that are seamlessly installed upon rooftops. Rebate incentives and tax breaks also are driving down prices.

While it’s not practical to incorporate solar modules in heavily shaded areas with no direct sunlight, solar systems are popping up in other places all over North America, largely because of incentives offered by the federal government and local utility companies.

Another key benefit for builders is the many options that can be applied to solar panels. “Choices in today’s market are a lot different than two years ago,” says Jim Bayless, president of Treasure Homes in Northern California. “We experience little opposition to installing solar systems. Obviously, there is a cost with getting them in, but that’s really the only resistance we encounter.”

The majority of installed systems is mainly for supplemental power, where homeowners are connected to the grid and have a local agreement with an electrical company. The energy not used goes back to the grid, and a monthly electrical statement tells the homeowner how much power the system generated and consumed.

“The solar panels that we install have an inverter that converts power into AC. We install the Xantrex inverter that provides instantaneous, daily and cumulative production of power,” Bayless adds.

Certain manufacturers are making the installation process easier for builders. “BP Solar offers the Integra solar roof system that provides a low-profile installation for all kinds of asphalt shingle roofs, and the EnergyTile solar roof system,” says Paul Garvison, director of business development, BP Solar North America. “EnergyTile takes on the shape and color of flat concrete roof tiles, keeping with the natural form of rooflines.” Both systems can accommodate almost any roof pitch and are offered in a wide array of system sizes.

Following the same lines is the MyGen Meridian system offered by Kyocera Solar. “The Meridian system can be installed on a conventional flat tile roof of any pitch and is also compatible with several concrete roof tiles,” says Tom Dyer, vice president of marketing and government affairs, Kyocera Solar.

Help with Education

Not only are the leading solar manufacturers tweaking out the kinks in the installation process, they also are involved on the marketing end. One of the top difficulties builders face is educating the homeowner and gaining interest in new-construction homes that offer solar power systems.

As the recent Sharp survey results show, consumers, while aware of solar power technology, do not fully comprehend how a solar system works. A lack of understanding makes some believe solar modules can provide electricity similar to what they get from their local utility company.

“As the world’s leading solar manufacturer, Sharp views this uncertainty as a strong reason for educating the public about the features and benefits of solar energy. It can power everything from air conditioning and computers to appliances and vacuums; consumers need to understand why it makes sense, both financially and for the environment,” Kenedi says. Sharp, Kyocera and BP Solar account for more than 50 percent of solar cell production.

On top of launching marketing campaigns and conducting surveys, manufacturers are offering links on their web sites to help guide and assist builders with marketing solar systems. BP Solar has a “Builders’ Benefits” page that reiterates the company’s commitment to the builder with help on community planning, training and support, permitting provisions, system installation, commissioning and inspections, home buyer orientation, and warranties and service. Also, BP Solar offers assistance with solar marketing expertise, sales training, promotional materials, and event and media support.

Figuring out which states offer which incentives can be tricky for a builder or homeowner. Plenty of important data on state, local, utility and federal incentives is available at dsireusa.org. Another useful tool is an interactive calculator found on the web sites of BP Solar, Sharp Solar and Kyocera Solar (solar.sharpusa.com, kyocerasolar.com and bpsolar.com). Users are required to enter their zip code and current electric bill to create a solar system simulation. This can help homeowners determine the variable costs and benefits of installing a solar module system.

PV Alternatives on the Horizon

Silicon-based panels historically have been the poster-child for photovoltaics, but new product development increasingly is focused on a new thin film material called CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) that can be more efficient to manufacture, more cost-effective to install and operate, and more attractive in an array of applications.

In today’s photovoltaic market, silicon modules typically are added to existing homes and buildings. HelioVolt Corp. believes that in tomorrow’s market manufacturing technology will make aesthetically pleasing photovoltaic building components an integral part of each building in a cityscape. HelioVolt, in conjunction with its manufacturing partners, will introduce CIGS PV systems in custom shapes, sizes and tints to create power-generating architectural glass, roofing and other building materials for commercial and residential applications (see photo below). The company’s first products — conventional solar modules made with the new manufacturing technology — will be available beginning in 2008.

Aesthetics aside, the unique structure of CIGS allows for a photovoltaic layer 100 times thinner than traditional silicon — a thin-film technology that can equate to significantly lower costs: One dollar of crystalline silicon could be replaced with as little as 3 cents of CIGS thin film for the same electrical output, HelioVolt contends. Enabled by such material efficiencies, in combination with advanced product design and system integration, HelioVolt’s resulting turnkey products will offer further benefits in the form of simple installation and easier monitoring and maintenance throughout the system’s lifetime.

This underutilized material system, HelioVolt says, adeptly tempered by its breakthrough technology and integrated with high-performance solar energy systems from its industry partners, will herald a new era of solar for both retrofit paneling and integrated building design.

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