BIPV in solar-power spotlight

Solar power came under spotlight when Abu Dhabi won to host IRENA's HQ

A PV installation at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.
A PV installation at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

In one minute, the sun provides enough energy to supply the world’s energy needs for one year. In one day, it provides more energy than the world’s population could consume in 27 years. Of course, the sun’s energy is free, with a Swiss scientist figuring out how to harness it as long ago as 1767.

Recently solar power came under the spotlight when Abu Dhabi won its international bid to host the new headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA). While the conventional idea of solar power normally revolves around extensive PV arrays, such as at Masdar, one of the fastest-growing areas of application is Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV).

BIPV essentially incorporates photovoltaics as an integral building component, such as part of the walls or roof, or even as vision glass. The technology is already used widely in Europe, but is only starting to make inroads into the US now.

Hopefully the interest in renewable energy generated by IRENA, combined with the region-wide push towards sustainable practices in the construction industry, will mean that BIPV gains a foothold in the Middle East before too long. There is huge potential for ancillary sectors such as MEP and even architects to use BIPV to increase energy efficiency and optimise scarce-resource utilisation.

Major solar power companies like PNNL, Vitex Systems and Battelle are conducting extensive research into the film encapsulation process required to produce ‘flexible’ solar panels that can be used like roof shingles, for example.

These could replace today’s boxy solar panels made with rigid glass or silicon and mounted on thick metal frames. The solar shingles would be less expensive to install, and last 25 years.

However, a big stumbling block to date has been the cost and the difficulty associated with the installation process. If both these factors could be mitigated by current research and development, then MEP consultants and architects could stand to benefit from an entirely new niche market.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that, with a good solar yield assumed to be 80%, the achievable level of solar-power production by PV roofs and façades varies from 15% to 60% (the ratio used is BIPV solar-power production potential over current electricity consumption).

The achievable level depends ultimately on the building area available, as well as on solar radiation levels and electricity consumption. All these factors imply that BIPV could have a massive potential in the UAE, where major international players like Scheuten are positioning themselves carefully to take advantage of the ‘desert renewables boom’.

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