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Building solar demand - one house at a time

05 Oct 2010

A combination of lower cell costs, feed-in tariffs and innovative module designs is set to drive a huge expansion of building-integrated photovoltaics.

“In the beginning, this was a phenomenon for Hollywood stars.” So says Mathias Schillen, who heads Suntech Power's European sales for building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). According to Schillen, the occasional glimpse of expensive, often bulky first-generation building-applied photovoltaic (BAPV) products in the early 1990s made them seem exotic and exclusive.

At the same time MSK, the Japanese solar module manufacturer bought by Suntech in 2006, was developing its “Just Roof” module for use in its domestic market. A large, all-black module that can directly replace an entire roof, it is far removed from the familiar bolted-on panel, and one of the first products to demonstrate the importance of appearance.

“There's a high aesthetic aspect in that product, that people are willing to pay for,” Schillen explained, adding that since its introduction, more than 5000 Just Roof modules have been installed in Japan. Yet, other than the occasional showpiece, the rest of the world has been slower to pick up on BIPV than it has on utility-scale solar generation. Among other factors, the broader availability of attractive modules is now set to make BIPV a much more common, albeit less conspicuous, sight.

According to Dave Cavanaugh, senior analyst at Pike Research, the increased aesthetic appeal is one of a number of contributory factors that have aligned over recent years to position BIPV and BAPV for rapid growth. “The biggest one, of course, is cost per watt,” he said. “That's what has limited market share and market acceptance for years.” Across the whole solar market, the typical photovoltaic module price has fallen around 55 percent from mid-2008 to reach $1.75/W today, thanks to supply constraints – primarily of polycrystalline silicon – being removed, he notes.

FiT for purpose
“Another factor is increased feed-in tariffs,” Cavanaugh observed. “There have been some substantial improvements in feed-in tariffs in France, in Ontario, Canada, the UK and a few other EU countries that have favored installations of BIPV products.” Taken together, Pike Research predicts that these factors will drive the combined BIPV/BAPV market to grow from 215 MW in 2009 to 2,385 MW in 2016, at a compound annual growth rate of 41 percent. That will mean that it grows from comprising about 3 percent of the overall solar market to reach 7 percent by 2016. “Under optimistic conditions, the BIPV/BAPV market could grow to as much as 3,475 MW,” Cavanaugh added.

Suntech Power has seen at first-hand how a feed-in tariff can drive demand rapidly. “The volume really exploded in the French market,” Schillen said. “We have installed more than 25 MW in France alone, which for the BIPV segment is extremely good.” As the world's largest crystalline silicon module producer, Suntech intends only to sell standard-sized, high-volume products like Just Roof, and this calls for high demand levels. However it believes that the current explosion will rapidly propel the BIPV market still further, justifying its participation. “The French market is definitely the biggest, with 400-600 MW next year,” Schillen predicted. “It's followed very closely by the Italian market, which [is close to] 400 MW, in our estimation.”

While modules based on crystalline silicon cells and amorphous silicon products together claimed 93 percent of the BIPV/BAPV market in 2009, Pike Research predicts that this dominance will be short-lived. “Amorphous silicon panels are going to suffer a market share loss,” Cavanaugh said. “It's going to be difficult for them to survive in the next three to four years. If the new cadmium-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) tiles and shingles from Dow Solar, Global Solar and Ascent Solar deliver what has been promised thus far, I think they will take a good chunk of the market share.”

As well as CIGS cells being cheaper than their rivals, the shingles offer higher efficiency and the potential for simpler electrical installation, both of which drive lower costs. “If these shingles can be mounted mechanically and electrically on roofs at the same time, that will provide a huge advantage in value proposition,” Cavanaugh pointed out.

One size fits all?
Beyond ensuring that they are appealing and economical enough for people to want to buy them, all BIPV technologies must also overcome the challenging obstacle posed by building codes. “There are many local restrictions that we need to adapt our products to,” Schillen said. He notes that as well as helping get costs down, standardization is a powerful approach for tackling this problem.

However, Cavanaugh believes that smaller companies offering more flexibility in adapting their products to architectural needs are a particular reason why certain crystalline silicon module producers will benefit from BIPV's rapid growth. “There are some very innovative and clever designs of modules from the likes of Canadian Solar and Solarfun, as well as Scheuten Solar and Schüco in Germany,” he noted. “They're willing to manage module aesthetics and shapes and sizes, which is difficult. Think about making a huge throughput of solar modules on a line and then having to customize them into various patterns, shapes and sizes to accommodate a building’s needs – that's difficult.”

As well as altering shape, modifying the optical properties of modules provides further valuable niches where people may not currently think they could use photovoltaics, Cavanaugh observed. “Variable color and light transmission is important in atria roofs and even windows of buildings where you don't want 100 percent light transmission,” he said. “You can vary that based on backsheets of crystalline solar cells, and you can even change the density and color of the cells themselves.”

Through combining this suite of approaches, Pike Research believes that by 2016 the BIPV/BAPV market will earn wholesale revenues of at least $4 billion and perhaps as much as $5.8 billion. Those figures, which arise from sales to installers, building materials suppliers, and other wholesale end markets, will represent an increase from $740 million in 2009.

But perhaps the largest financial benefit will come from the combination of a feed-in-tariff with the lower cell prices that will bring the cost of PV electricity nearer to that generated by conventional means. The more that this becomes the case, the more BIPV will give individuals and businesses the chance to use the roof over their head to put money in the bank.

• Pike Research’s report, “Building-Integrated Photovoltaics”, is available now via the company's web site.

About the Author

Andy Extance is a freelance science and technology writer.

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