New technology to integrate solar panels into buildings
An EU-funded project is developing a new generation of solar panels that can be part of traditional house elements like roofs, windows and glass facades. The innovative solar panels can be integrated so well in a building that they are not even visible. This will encourage the take-up of solar energy by European consumers and give the European construction industry a competitive advantage.
© Marcel Van Coile and Dominique Deramaix
Despite EU legislation which should have seen the solar technology industry grow annually by an estimated 15 % in the global construction industry between 2013 and 2019, market growth has been slower than expected.
This was mainly due to a lack of flexibility in the design and aesthetics of solar panels, making it difficult for architects and end-users to integrate them seamlessly in their buildings. However, inadequate design tools for the combined photovoltaic and building performance assessment, uncertain long-term reliability of the technology, compliance with legal regulations, smart interaction with the grid, and cost-effectiveness also played a part.
The EU-funded PVSITES project has created a range of building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) solar panels alongside building energy-management systems and architectural design tools to meet these market demands. It is using several case studies to demonstrate how these panels can integrate good design, and effective energy production to create cost-effective constructions. It is also developing design software tools for architects to help them better integrate these novel PV products in their designs.
We have been able to introduce to the market several products developed by the project during its third year, long before the end of the project, says project coordinator Maider Machado from the Solar Energy Group at Tecnalia Research and Innovation, Spain. There are already six completed commercial installations and several more are ongoing.
Breaking down market barriers
Initially, PVSITES analysed the market for BIPV or solar technology. Then, it formulated business models and commercialisation plans and assessed all potential risks.
One of its main goals was to bring the BIPV technology from an architectural niche to the attention of the mass construction industry, hence creating a new branch and contributing to job creation in Europe.
To achieve this, BIPV technology needed greater design flexibility to compete aesthetically with traditional building materials, such as glass, wood or metal. PVSITES developed BIPV elements that can serve the purpose of building elements, such as roofs, walls or windows. Furthermore, the technology focused on ensuring it provides the same functionalities as traditional construction materials and components for example, it can also protect a building from various weather conditions or isolate it from cold and hot exteriors.
PVSITES more flexible and aesthetic solar panels are made from various materials, like crystalline silicon glass-based solutions and thin film PV on a lightweight metal sheet. They have already been tested and made compliant with photovoltaic and construction standards, delivering one of the first applications of the new BIPV European standard.
To support architects, PVSITES has also developed a special design software. It is fully compliant with the industry standards and practices and will enable architects to integrate these novel solar panels in their building designs.
Equally important, the project focused on the energy efficiency of its novel technology, to manage and seamlessly integrate in the grid the electricity produced by the solar panels. To achieve this, PVSITES created a smart building energy-management system using software that predicts the influence of solar technology on a buildings energy performance.
The project is also developing two new inverter technologies to improve the integration of the electricity generated in the grid. The inverters enable the electrical energy produced to be introduced directly into the electricity network. Hardware and software have been designed for these converters and the project has already manufactured its first prototypes.
Installations are on the way
The PVSITES solar technology is being installed in seven buildings in different European locations and climatic conditions: a house in Stambruges, Belgium; an apartment building in Wattignies, France; the prestigious Swiss École Hotelière de Genève and two car parks in Zurich, Switzerland; an industrial building in Barcelona, and an office building in San Sebastián, Spain.
The Swiss car parks use curved, lightweight and flexible panels which are both functional and aesthetic. They incorporate an electric vehicle charger so that the electricity produced can be used on-site.
The electricity generated from the house in Stambruges will be stored in a battery bank to cover as much of the household consumption as possible. The BIPV system is expected to make the house an energy-plus building whereby its yearly energy production will exceed its consumption.
In San Sebastián, the office building tends to overheat, so the project will place glass solar panels on the facades, which will not only produce electricity but will also have a cooling effect by shading the windows.
The PVSITES technology is already selling around the world while the project results are also being used to push solar research forward. Several partners in PVSITES have decided to join forces in the new H2020 project BIPVBOOST, which is mainly focused on drastically reducing the cost of BIPV modules and systems, says Machado.