building integrated photovoltaics (bipv)

Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV): what you need to know

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When you think of solar, rooftops or open fields with panels generating renewable electricity probably come to mind. However, solar products have evolved – and now, there are many options available under the umbrella of “building-integrated photovoltaics”, or BIPV. BIPV products merges solar tech with the structural elements of buildings, leading to many creative and innovative ways to generate solar electricity.

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What is BIPV?

While traditional solar panels usually don’t provide any actual structural function to the buildings they’re installed on, BIPV does. At its core, BIPV is a category of dual-purpose solar products. Building-integrated photovoltaics both generate solar electricity and work as a structural part of a building.

Today, most BIPV products are designed for large commercial buildings, like an apartment complex or community center. There will always be exceptions, however, and the widely-known Tesla Solar Roof is a prime example of BIPV’s rising popularity within residential home construction.

Types of BIPV

Any structural building material that can generate solar electricity technically counts as BIPV. Here are the main examples of BIPV tech today:

Roofing

Probably the most talked-about type of BIPV technology is solar roofing. Also known as solar shingles or solar tiles, this is an alternative to traditional rooftop solar panels – instead of placing panels on top of your existing roof, you can replace your roof shingles or tiles with a dual-purpose photovoltaic roofing material that both provides shelter and generates electricity.

A solar roof has many potential advantages, but the technology is not as mature as conventional solar panels. Mainly, the cells of solar roof products aren’t as efficient as traditional monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar panels, and, glaringly, the cost of a solar roof is typically much higher than a rooftop solar panel installation.

Transparent glaze

The sun hits more building surfaces than a roof, so why not take advantage of that space? While solar irradiance depends on geography, one or more sides of a building often have decent sun exposure. Solar windows (or solar glass) are a category of BIPV products that rely on solar glaze, ultra-thin solar cells that capture sunlight while also maintaining transparency, like an ordinary window. 

General building elements

We don’t have a good category for other ways of integrating solar into structures, so we’ll go with “general building elements”. This can include solar awnings, building facades, or really anything structural about a building’s side that can be solar-ified. More often than rooftop solar installations, these types of solar-integrated building elements experiment with using lightweight thin-film solar panels or organic solar cells.

Pros and cons of using building-integrated photovoltaics

BIPV certainly has potential. Just look at the Tesla Solar Roof, which has piqued the interest of a wide swath of the population due to its aesthetic and functional appeal. However, as with any solar technology, it’s important to know what you’re getting (or not getting):

Advantages of BIPV

The obvious benefit of BIPV is that it’s another way to generate free energy from the sun. Enough solar energy is continually hitting Earth to power our entire planet 10,000x over, so every extra inch of that surface we can use to generate electricity is a plus.

Aside from solar production, the aesthetics of BIPV are a big draw. While some people dislike the noticeable look of solar panels on top of their roof, BIPV offers a subtler, sleeker way to go solar. For commercial and industrial buildings, BIPV is a way to showcase a company’s or organization’s innovation and environmental awareness.

Disadvantages of BIPV

BIPV is part of the building itself, so unlike traditional solar panels, it’s best to plan ahead and construct your building with BIPV solutions from the get-go for both design and cost reasons. From a design perspective, knowing where you need sunlight to hit before building an entire structure is near essential for integrating solar products. And from a cost perspective, it can reduce the incremental costs for builders to know upfront that you want to integrate solar production into a building.

BIPV vs. BAPV: it’s a technicality

If we’re going to be 100 percent accurate, a retrofitted BIPV solution is not truly BIPV. In the solar industry, this is known as building-added photovoltaics, or BAPV. The end result is the same (say, a solar shingled roof on your home), but the timing of integrating the building with the photovoltaics changes the nomenclature.

Speaking of costs, the other main disadvantage of BIPV is the price tag. Because building-integrated solar is not as mature of a product as solar panels, costs remain high. Plus, because BIPV cell efficiencies are usually not as high as solar panels, that means you’ll likely be paying more money for lower solar electricity production.

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About Jacob Marsh

Jacob is a researcher and content writer at EnergySage, where he focuses primarily on current issues–and new technology!–in the solar industry. With a background in environmental and geological science, Jacob brings an analytical perspective and passion for conservation to help solar shoppers make the right energy choices for their wallet and the environment. Outside of EnergySage, you can find him playing Ultimate Frisbee or learning a new, obscure board game.

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