Solar World: No panels here

Cropping up all over northern California are solar-powered houses with nary a panel in sight.

"Building-integrated photovoltaics is one of the fastest-growing segments of the photovoltaic industry," according to BIPV maker TerraSolar. "When PV panels are integrated into a building during construction, the incremental costs of the system are reduced while the building owner is provided with tangible, cost-saving advantages such as significantly reduced demand for peak electricity, reduced transmission losses and the ability of back-up power."

Building-integrated photovoltaics, known as BIPV in the solar industry, is the science of making the structure itself from solar energy-producing materials.

"BIPV technology is widely used throughout Europe, but is just beginning to be applied here in the United States," according to an informational Web site produced by the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.

"Most U.S. architects, engineering firms, building owners, and builders know very little about (BIPV). The majority of BIPV products exist for commercial construction, and commercial buildings can accommodate the several thousand dollar cost required for installing even a small one-kilowatt BIPV system. The technical potential in commercial buildings is significant, and they suffer fewer problems from orientation and shading."

Homebuilding contractor Lennar Corp. recently unveiled several new housing developments that feature BIPV technology, including plans for a 650-home development in Roseville, Calif., that will be the largest solar-powered neighborhood in the United States, according to a company statement.

The contracting company also has plans for a San Francisco Bay-area neighborhood of high-end solar homes, complete with centralized electronic controls and flat-screen TVs.

The contractors partnered with SunPower for the BIPV technology.

"Unlike solar panels of the past, elevated above the roof, the (houses') solar electric system integrates seamlessly into each home's roofline ... (and) feature the world's most efficient solar cell," Howard Wenger, SunPower's vice president of Global Business Units, said in a joint statement from Lennar and SunPower.

The Roseville homes will run between $400,000 and $600,000, according to a spokeswoman for the company, while the Bay-area homes are in the million-dollar range.

Solar Semiconductor, a company with offices in California and India, also recently announced plans to incorporate BIPV into its business plan: "We are building a solar PV module plant in Hyderabad, India to international standards," Venkat Kode, the company's chief operating officer, said in a company statement. "In addition to crystalline PV modules, our plant can manufacture amorphous, BIPV and thin film modules."

"In this industry we are heading toward commodity products ... (and need) an elegant solution," David Saltman, the chief executive officer of BIPV technology firm Open Energy Corporation, told United Press International late last year. Building with BIPV is safer than installing large, heavy, glass-mounted solar panels, he said, and each roof tile is lower-voltage. But just as importantly, he said, consumers want solar technology that "allows us to be beautiful."

Roofs made of BIPV material -- class A fire-rated roofing, Saltman stressed -- can be "the colors of real roofs," which decreases the chance that zoning laws or homeowners' councils will object to the aesthetics of a solar building in the neighborhood. BIPV can also significantly lower the cost of installing a solar technology system, he said.

And beyond the potential for new buildings, there is another giant market: "Retrofitting can be 50 percent of the business," said Saltman, who before entering the renewable energy market, founded the E! Entertainment television network. According to Forbes magazine, the smart investment money is on BIPV stock. Early in February, the publication picked Suntech Power Holdings and its BIPV subsidiary MSK as the stock of the week, quoting analysts as saying, "MSK is one of the top-ranked companies in the higher-margined business of BIPV. ... Overall, we still think that MSK will ultimately accelerate Suntech's expansion plans in Europe and Japan, while increasing cost efficiencies."

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