In the last decades of the 20th century, solar on your roof looked about as great as having a car on blocks in the front yard. Not only did you tee off your neighbors and eliminate yourself from home-and-garden awards, rooftop solar even dented appraisal values.
As the urgency of climate change presses upon us in searing summers and weirder weather, solar manufacturers are creating innovative ways to generate solar electricity by grafting solar cells into all manner of construction materials. If it’s a solid surface or even a bendable one, chances are some manufacturer has figured out a way to work in solar cells.
The only sticking point with some of these new solar materials is efficiency – the percentage of sunlight energy that’s converted through solar cells into usable juice. The best solar panels are about 22 percent efficient now. If you compare that to, say, forced-air gas furnaces, which can be as high as 98 percent efficient, (converting natural gas to heat delivered in a house), it’s not much to get jazzed about.
But there seems to be a Moore’s Law happening in solar – greater efficiencies and costs dropping
And the systems look better, too. A lot better.
GARDEN-VARIETY SOLAR – One option I’m seeing more is integrating solar PV along with rooftop gardens, and one client is installing the Sun-Root system in a condo building. Basically, the weight of the dirt and the plantings hold the solar panels and plinths in place. There is a tradeoff with the limited square feet of a rooftop, though – Do I go all solar, or create a beautiful garden for building occupants? Or both?
Systems like this are more common in Europe, but we’re starting to see uptake here in the United States. The cool temps of a vegetated space also help the panels operate more efficiently. (Panel efficiency – Conventional roof-mounted panels.)
SOLAR SHINGLES – If you absolutely cannot stand the way solar floats on a roof, solar shingles lie flush. The cost and efficiencies (per square foot) aren’t quite what traditional PV panels are so it’s been a tough sell. And in fact Dow Chemical, which was a powerhouse maker of solar shingles, stopped making their PowerHouse Solar System last month.
One client looked at the Suntegra solar shingle as an alternative to conventional panels, and the company also makes solar roof tiles to match ceramic tile profiles if Mediterranean is your thing. (Efficiency – Approximately 60 percent to conventional panels.)
PERGOLAS & DECK SHADING – Most of the solar pergolas I’ve run across are custom, one-offs. Basically, the pergolas are designed, and panels installed in them to provide both shading and solar electric current. (Take note, big-box hardware stores – bundle that, and you’ll sell out in blazing-hot summers during A/C brownouts.) (Efficiency – Conventional panels)
BUILDING-INTEGRATED PHOTOVOLTAIC (BIPV) – BIPV is where solar gets interesting because construction materials like exterior cladding and windows can generate electricity. While this may not be huge for residential properties where less than 20 percent of the skin is glass, it’s a game-changer in commercial buildings with “curtain walls” (glass hung on a metal frame) or custom homes with walls of windows. Check out Onyx for 21st century solar cells integrated into all sorts of mind-blowing building materials like sidewalks and colored floor panels that look like a discotheque.
ROADS & WALKWAYS – Wouldn’t it be cool if we could drive solar-powered cars across solar roads that generate electricity? Well, it’s already happening in France, and leave it to the French – it’s pretty, too. One U.S. company, Solar Roadways, is in early stages of bringing solar-powered roads here.
I work in Colorado’s mountain communities routinely on houses with features like (fossil fuel-)heated driveways and sidewalks. Maybe solar power-generating hardscapes could be the new, new thing for mountain-town manse owners who want to demonstrate some sustainability street cred.
We live in a magical time, and solar options multiply daily. Solar isn’t synonymous with bu---ugly anymore so you can have something that looks sexy and generates energy, too.
And if you have trouble finding any providers or installers for products like these, reach out. I have a deep network and am happy to help.
IMAGES: TOP, Colorado's Drop City artist commune, SpatialAgency.net. SECOND, Rooftop solar garden, Sun-Root. THIRD, Solar pergola, Aurinkopaneeli. BOTTOM, Solar floor, Onyx.