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What are Building-Integrated Photovoltaics?

Caitlin Kenney
Caitlin Kenney

Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) uses photovoltaic panels in the place of traditional building materials in building structures such as roofs, windows, and facades. Photovoltaic panels generate solar power by converting sunlight to electricity. This renewable, non-polluting source of energy makes building-integrated photovoltaics an integral part of sustainable architecture. Photovoltaic panels are designed into many new construction projects, but they can also be fitted on pre-existing buildings. Many BIPV buildings in countries such as France, Germany, and the United States give energy back to the grid and receive financial incentives for doing so.

Photovoltaics (PV) is a fast growing field of technology due to the growing need and desire for clean energy alternative. A photovoltaic panel can be integrated into a building, or it can be mounted on the ground. These panels or modules house many packaged solar cells, which are made up of several photodiodes that convert natural light into electricity. In a grid-connected PV system, this electricity is then routed into an electricity grid. In a stand-alone system, the energy charges a battery where it can be stored for later use.

Solar panels can be integrated into a building's design to provide electricity.
Solar panels can be integrated into a building's design to provide electricity.

The term building-integrated photovoltaics usually implies that the building was planned with PV systems in mind. The photovoltaic industry has designed PV panels for several different purposes and styles, so an architect’s sense of creativity and aesthetics need not be stifled by his desire for sustainability. PV modules come in an array of colors, and may be framed or unframed, opaque, transparent, semi-transparent, flexible, or rigid thin film on metal substrate. Size, shape, and peak voltage can also be customized. The proper panel choice will largely depend on its purpose. Crystalline modules should not be used in areas with high temperatures, as it decreases their efficiency.

Roofing can be made from BIPV.
Roofing can be made from BIPV.

The most common type of panel installed is for flat roofs. They can come in the form of solar roof tiles or shingles, or solar modules, which are subdivided into flexible modules, transparent or semi-transparent modules, or thin film modules. Thin film modules have proved the most popular, placing one or more thin layers of solar cells over electrical insulator base called a substrate. Building-integrated photovoltaics also allows for the construction of pitched roofs with either mounted or integrated panels.

PV facades or PV curtain walls, the faces of a building, are built for purposes of energy saving, aesthetics, and weatherproofing. These can be made with traditional, transparent, or semi-transparent modules. Facades can also be equipped with shadowing systems, which tilt the modules to shade the building or to maximize the efficiency of energy harnessing. These modules can be tilted manually or automatically and are sometimes known as “Shadow-Voltaic” systems. Shadowing systems may be integrated into the original building or can be mounted later.

Transparent or semi-transparent PV panels are used to replace traditional building materials, such as glass, in glazing or laminates. In building-integrated photovoltaics, architects often use low-tempered iron glass to sandwich the solar cells. Glazing usually employs thin film cells, monocrystalline cells, or transparent cells between two layers of foil. Some panels allow visible light to pass through the window while using the ultraviolet light to produce energy. Other windows may be tinted for shade, equipped with shadowing systems, or colored.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV)?

Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) are solar power-generating systems that are seamlessly integrated into the structure of a building, rather than being added on. They serve as both the outer layer of a structure and a power generator, replacing traditional building materials in parts like the roof, skylights, or facades. BIPV systems can significantly reduce electricity costs and contribute to a building's aesthetic appeal.

How do BIPV systems differ from traditional solar panels?

Unlike traditional solar panels, which are mounted on top of existing structures, BIPV systems are designed to be a part of the building's envelope. This integration can provide a more aesthetically pleasing look and often requires less space. BIPV can also enhance the building's thermal insulation properties, whereas traditional solar panels may not contribute to the building's insulation performance.

What are the benefits of using BIPV in construction?

BIPV systems offer numerous benefits, including reduced electricity bills, lower carbon footprint, and increased property value. They also provide architectural versatility, allowing for creative design solutions. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, BIPV systems can potentially offset 40-60% of a building's electricity needs, contributing to significant energy savings over time.

Can BIPV be retrofitted onto existing buildings?

While BIPV is ideally incorporated during the construction phase for optimal design and energy efficiency, it is possible to retrofit BIPV onto existing buildings. Retrofitting requires careful consideration of the building's structural integrity and the compatibility of the BIPV system with the existing architecture. However, the energy and aesthetic benefits can make retrofitting a worthwhile investment.

Are there any financial incentives for installing BIPV systems?

Many regions offer financial incentives for installing BIPV systems, such as tax credits, rebates, and feed-in tariffs. For instance, in the United States, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) allows for a deduction of a percentage of the cost of installing a solar energy system from federal taxes. These incentives can significantly reduce the overall cost and improve the return on investment for BIPV installations.

What is the lifespan of a BIPV system, and are they difficult to maintain?

BIPV systems typically have a long lifespan, often around 25 to 30 years, similar to traditional solar panels. They are designed to withstand environmental factors such as wind, rain, and temperature fluctuations. Maintenance is generally minimal, usually involving regular cleaning and occasional inspections to ensure optimal performance. The durability and low maintenance requirements make BIPV a practical choice for long-term energy generation.

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    • Solar panels can be integrated into a building's design to provide electricity.
      By: Route16
      Solar panels can be integrated into a building's design to provide electricity.
    • Roofing can be made from BIPV.
      By: Monkey Business
      Roofing can be made from BIPV.