Technology

Beyond the solar panel

 By Amanda Saint

Building-integrated photovoltaics are set to be the next big thing in the renewable energy and construction sectors…

No longer do homes, public buildings and commercial offices need to have arrays of solar panels installed on the roof. They can now have roof tiles, windows and skylights that will generate energy. There are even solar-powered roads on the horizon.

Solar Shingles
Solar shingles have been around for a while but they are set to become the next big thing for new housing developments and retro-fits for homeowners that want to start generating their own power. This surge in popularity is due to Tesla Motors’ merger with SolarCity to create Tesla Energy and their launch in May 2017 of Solar Roof—the new range of solar tiles that look just like the original non-energy producing shingles roofs have always had. This is a game-changer as the aesthetics of the old solar shingle that looked like a mini solar panel were essentially the biggest thing holding it back. That and the storage issue, but Tesla has got around that too with a design feature that means the roof only generates as much power as the house needs, or they can provide a storage system too. Homes in California are set to have the first Solar Roof installations in June 2017.

Tesla's Solar Roof Is Cheaper Than Expected (Bloomberg)

Solar Buildings
Colorado company, Lumos Solar, has been focused on turning solar power generation into design features and has installed a wide range of different style solar features in homes and commercial and public buildings across the state. These include solar canopies, balcony railings, patio covers, carports and awnings. In the UK, Romag is creating designs with solar generation elements built into the fabric of the building so that no external panels have to be fixed to the surface. The company won an award recently for its Kingsgate House project in which electricity is generated from green photovoltaic (PV) cells laminated into glass louvres, running vertically down the front of the building and are designed to look like a living wall.

Solar Windows
Ubiquitous Energy is a California-based MIT spinout company that has designed solar cells that appear transparent because they only absorb ultraviolet and infrared light. They can be used on windows to generate electricity while still letting the light in and letting people inside the building see out. The company says that the Clearview PowerTM technology for windows that it has created—Smart Glass—not only enables buildings to generate power but also helps them to be more energy efficient too, while keeping ultraviolet and infrared light out.

Transparent Solar Cells (Solar Windows) by Ubiquitous energy (Charbax)

Solar Laptops
Canadian company, SOL, has created a leadless laptop with solar energy generation built into the lid. Just flip it open and fold out the flexible solar panels and the laptop will be fully charged, on a sunny day, in just a couple of hours. It’s also rugged and designed for challenging conditions making it a good option for use in disaster areas where the electricity supply is down, on expeditions and research trips to wild places, and in developing countries where many people are still not connected to the grid.

Solar Roads
The first installed solar road was a bike path in the Netherlands, which has been in place since 2014 and was reported to be generating enough electricity in six months to power a small home for a year. In 2016, an actual road that cars and heavy goods vehicles can drive on was opened in Tourouvre-au-Perche, a small village in Normandy, France. Just 1 km long, the road has been installed as a test-bed for the technology, which has been developed by Colas and is called Wattway. The technology can be installed on existing road surfaces and just 20 m2 can apparently provide enough electricity for a French home for a year. In the US, Solar Roadways has developed a similar technology and crowdfunded over a $2 million to help it achieve its highly ambitious goal of paving the entire country’s roads with solar panels. The design includes LED lights for road lines and signs, so there’s no need for paint. It will also be able to charge solar cars as they drive on it.

A Smarter Path - Chasing Genius (National Geographic)

The concept has been tested in a solar car park so far and in November 2015, the company received $750,000 federal funding under a two-year contract to continue the research and move toward road and highway installations. With technologies like these either on the market or in development, could solar farms in fields and panel arrays on roofs soon be a thing of the past?

SEE MORE: Solar’s window of opportunity by RP Siegel

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.