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Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPVs) For Your Home

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Aug 4, 2021

When you ask most homeowners about the available options for integrating solar energy into their homes, the vast majority of people will likely respond that rooftop solar panels are their primary option. There are, of course, people who either do not own their home. Others live in multi-family condos or apartments. Many people have roofs that do not receive enough direct sunlight to make rooftop solar feasible. For these situations, participating in community solar programspurchasing green power, or finding other solar-powered products (like solar grills) enable them to benefit from clean, renewable solar energy.

Recently, however, building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) energy is revolutionizing how homeowners can incorporate solar energy production into their homes. This short article takes an in-depth look at BIPVs to help you determine if this might be an option for a new home or a renewable energy retrofit of your existing home.

What Are Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV)?

The main difference separating building-integrated photovoltaics from traditional solar panels can be easily summed up. Whereas solar panels are attached to the home (most often rooftops), BIPVs are built into the house's vital exterior elements. In this sense, BIPVs serve the double function of generating renewable energy for your home from the sun while also performing the necessary structural tasks of certain building elements.

Solar Roof Tiles
Solar Roof Tiles

What Is an Example of a BIPV?

The most common type of building-integrated photovoltaic product is solar shingles or solar roofing materials. Check out this complete RISE guide for more detailed information on solar roofing options for homeowners. Building-integrated photovoltaics officially got their start when the company Tesla began marketing their solar shingle in 2017. In the roughly four years since that launch, the variety of BIPV products continues to expand, and not just for your roof.

Clear Vue Single and Double Glazed Solar Window
Solar Window. Photo Credit: ClearVue PV

Where Can You Install Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV)?

Essentially, anywhere that sunlight directly hits the exterior surface of your home, homeowners can potentially incorporate BIPV products into the building design. Companies that operate in the BIPV market continue to find ingenious ways to integrate BIPV products into the building envelope seamlessly. They can be part of standard building components such as façades, roofs, or windows. Though you could not generate electricity by placing solar panels on your home foundation, virtually anywhere that sunlight is present, you may be able to find a BIPV product to install.

A2 Solar Glass Railings
BIPV Glass Railings. Photo Credit: A2 Solar

What Types of Building-Integrated Photovoltaics Can You Buy?

BIPV products used to be exclusively for roofing. This feature makes sense since our roofs generally receive the most direct solar radiation. Most early innovators in BIPV technology focused on replacing traditional roofing with panels, tiles, or shingles that could generate renewable solar energy while protecting the home from the elements. The impetus for this innovation stemmed from a simple economic calculation. Suppose the average cost of a roofing replacement in the USA costs between $5,500 and $11,500. In that case, solar panels that doubled as a roof could essentially "subsidize" part of the cost of going solar.

More recently, companies have begun to look for ways to incorporate solar energy production in other traditional building elements. Today, homeowners can find BIPV products to "replace" the following building elements:

  • Roofs
  • Facades or exterior cladding
  • Windows
  • Skylights
  • Attached greenhouses
  • Pergolas
  • Balcony railings

BIPV products are systems that can function as a component of the building skin or envelope while simultaneously converting solar energy into electricity by serving a dual purpose. Instead of attaching solar panels to a separate roof or façade, BIPV products can offer weather protection, thermal insulation, noise protection, daylight illumination, and even increased safety, along with an independent, clean source of renewable energy for your home.

According to one financial analysis, building-integrated photovoltaic products' total global market size will grow to an astounding $59.5 billion by 2028. As more and more companies rush to enter the BIPV industry, the market could see a compound annual growth rate of at least 20 percent! In practical terms, this means that the options for building-integrated photovoltaics currently available to homeowners and builders will only continue to expand. Prices should also continue to drop as competition stiffens and more innovative products become available. The combination of the plummeting cost of solar energy and innovative technologies in solar energy production (such as thin-film technologies, solar cell efficiency, open-circuit voltage, short circuit current, maximum effect, and fill factor) will almost certainly continue to drive innovation in BIPV products.

Fossil Fuel Use for Homes

Across North American, there is a significant push for achieving net-zero energy use in our homes. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) states bleakly that natural gas (a fossil fuel) continues to be the primary source of electricity, accounting for 42 percent of residential sector end-use energy consumption in 2020. Petroleum was the next most-consumed energy source in the residential sector in 2020, accounting for 8 percent of total residential sector energy end-use. It is hopeful to see that coal is being slowly phased out for residential uses. Still, renewable energy sources such as geothermal, solar, and wood fuels together only account for about seven percent of the residential sector energy end-use in 2020.

BIPVs can play a significant role in helping to speed up the widespread adoption of renewable energies and help more and more homeowners attain net-zero energy use. 

Onyx Solar Glass
Solar Glass. Photo Credit: Onyx Solar

How Much Energy Can BIPVs Produce?

The exact amount of energy that BIPV products or systems can produce is contextual. The total amount of energy will depend on several environmental factors related to your home location, including:

  • Insolation/Solar Radiation: The average amount of solar radiation your home receives, as calculated by kWh/m2/day, is the most common way to describe the amount of solar resources in a particular area. Check out this tool provided by the US Department of Energy to determine your home's solar radiation potential.
  • Climate and other Weather Conditions: Both scorching summer temperatures and continuously cloudy/rainy conditions can negatively affect the system output for all types of BIPVs. Also, urban areas with high levels of air pollution may increase cleaning and maintenance requirements to ensure the BIPV systems operate at maximum efficiency.
  • Shading Conditions: Though solar technologies today deal better with shady conditions, the presence of trees, buildings, and other structures that block the sun from your home for long periods of the day will reduce the BIPV system energy production.
Solar Timber BIPV Amena AG via A2 Solar
Solar Timber BIPV. Photo Credit: Amena AG via A2 Solar

Can BIPVs Collect as Much Energy as Solar Panels?

Given the environmental factors mentioned above, many homeowners ask when considering BIPV systems: Will these systems produce nearly as much energy as standard solar panels? In the case of solar roofing or solar shingles, the answer is yes. Solar panels permit installers to tilt the individual panels to the optimum orientation to catch more sunlight. In contrast, solar shingles generally cover the total roofing area, thus making up for this slight difference in inefficiency. In many cases, a roof covered in solar shingles or another type of BIPV roofing should be able to provide the needed electricity for efficient homes to achieve net-zero energy use.

Because of proper orientation, other BIPV products such as solar facades and windows may be less efficient than solar panels. However, this will vary on a case-by-case basis. The south-facing façade of your home may be the best place to capture solar radiation if your roof orientation is not ideal.

In terms of generation efficiency, the case for BIPV systems is less straightforward. The darker BIPV panels such as those used for solar shingles or other types of solar roofing generally have comparable efficiency ratings to regular solar panels. However, the transparent or semi-transparent BIPV panels used on windows, skylights, and other similar surfaces continue to be significantly less efficient. Because these transparent BIPV products allow some solar radiation to pass through, the total generation efficiency might only be 50 to 75 percent as efficient as regular solar panels.

Are BIPVs Worth It?

The primary appeal of BIPV products is twofold. BIPV systems increase the space on and around that home where you can turn solar radiation into usable energy for your home. More importantly, is the economic factor because BIPV products serve a double function. They provide renewable energy while also protecting the house, reducing the cost of autonomous solar energy generation for homeowners.

By using solar shingles instead of asphalt panels, homeowners can essentially "discount" the roofing price from their solar installation. The same "discount" could also be applied to skylights, railings, skylights, and other places where manufacturers could design BIPV systems.

How Long do BIPVs Last? 

Another added economic benefit with some BIPV systems is that they could potentially be much more durable than the building systems/elements they replace. For example, most asphalt shingle roofs have an average lifespan of 15 years. Conversely, most solar shingles will last 25-30 years with only a small drop in efficiency towards the end of that lifespan. The total economic savings associated with a BIPV roof, then, should take into consideration the cost of two roof installations. You could apply the same principle to solar facades and other BIPV systems.

PV Charging Table Onyx Solar
PV Charging Table. Photo Credit: Onyx Solar

What Are The Best BIPVs?

Several different companies are developing building-integrated photovoltaic products and systems. Tesla was the pioneer of solar shingles but for other types of BIPV products and systems, consider the following brands:

  • Onyx Solar: This company is one of the leaders in "solar glass" applications. They have developed a wide range of transparent or semi-transparent panels for photovoltaic skylights, curtain walls, canopies, spandrels, ventilated facades, and roofs. They even offer photovoltaic flooring options and a photovoltaic kit for outdoor furniture.
  • A-2 Solar: This European-based company specializes in solar facades, solar terraces, and solar railings. While most of their projects are for commercial and multi-family buildings, they could work with individual homeowners.
  • ClearVue: Lastly, this company manufactures and sells a 9.8 percent efficient "transparent" solar glass that purchasers can use in windows, greenhouses, and other innovative uses for solar-powered homes. ClearVue's products also include smart technology giving the homeowner a renewable energy source combined with comfort control solutions. Their solar glass can integrate with IoT connectivity. This feature offers several solutions for the smart home, including dynamically tinting glass, smart blinds and LED lighting, and automation and security through sensors.
ClearVue PV Glass Facade
Glass Facade. Photo Credit: ClearVue PV

As it stands, BIPV systems continue to be slightly more expensive than traditional solar panels. They are also less efficient in terms of converting solar radiation into usable energy for your home. However, as innovation in the world of BIPV continues to advance, homeowners should expect to see cost-effective and efficient renewable energy solutions that can integrate directly into the building components of their homes.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-08-04T18:28:13+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.