Twentieth century solar arrays often looked as good as having a car on blocks in the front yard. And solar was usually the preserve of the true believers – college professors, old-school greenies, or grownup hippies.
Not only was first-gen solar ugly, the real estate industry beat up homes that had it, actually dinging sale and appraisal values.
But as the urgency of climate change presses upon us in searing summers and weirder weather, solar manufacturers are creating cool-looking ways to generate solar electricity by grafting solar cells into all sorts 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 solar cells into it.
The only sticking point with some of these new solar electric-generating materials is efficiency – the percentage of sunlight energy that’s converted through solar cells into usable juice. The best solar panels are no greater than 25 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 in solar – greater efficiencies and costs dropping. And the systems look better, too. A lot better.
GARDEN-VARIETY SOLAR – One option that I'm seeing 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.(Panel efficiency – Conventional roof-mounted panels.)
SOLAR SHINGLES – If you absolutely cannot stand the way solar floats on a roof, solar shingles are flush with rooftop shingles. 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 this summer.
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, andpanels installed in them to provide both solar and electric current. (Take note, big-box hardware stores – bundle that, and you’ll sell out in blazing-hot summers. 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 a huge thing 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 to make it 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 massive houses with features like (fossil fuel-)heated driveways and sidewalks.While one could argue the necessity of such systems, a great way to offset this luxury is to load up rooftops, building sides, and adjacent lots with solar modules.
We live in a magical time, and solar isn’t synonymous with bu---ugly anymore. You and your design team can get creative with solar options on buildings and sites.
And reach out anytime with questions or for help. If you mention you read this blog, I’ll run a solar calculation for your property FREE. I love seeing folks get right with the planet.