Three Solar Panel Innovations and Practical Considerations for “Going Solar”

Building-Integrated PhotoVoltaics (BIPV)

from Emily Chung, CBC News June 2, 2021

While traditional solar panels are attached to buildings, BIPVs are built into the exterior as key elements. They can be anything exposed to the sun: shingles, windows, cladding, skylights, pergolas, balcony railings. One company, Toronto-based Mitrex, is even planning to use them to build greenhouses and highway noise barriers.

“BIPV systems are like other solar panels in that they generate clean energy that can be used for backup power or sold to the grid. But they need to be designed differently in order to serve other functions, such as keeping out the wind and rain or letting natural light shine in. Because of that, BIPV panels come in a much wider variety of shapes, sizes, colours and transparencies.”

“Canadian companies are starting to make transparent, coloured panels designed to protect the building. The sun-filled atrium of the Edmonton Convention Centre and the dramatic sloped roof of the Varennes Library in suburban Montreal, are both buildings that  as they are made of solar panels (BIVP)are generating power. It’s a solution touted by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, which started selling solar roof tiles in the USA in 2017. Since then, a range of made-in-Canada options for different parts of buildings have hit the market — and installations have sprung up across the country showcasing what’s possible.”

BIPVs Can Be Heat Generating As Well

BIVPs can potentially generate heat as well as electricity. At the Varennes Library, outdoor air pulled into the ventilation system is preheated by the solar panels before entering the building (which also has a geothermal heating system). That also cools the panels, which don’t generate as much power when they’re too hot. A heat pump can potentially be added to increase the amount of space and water heating the panels can do, and the amount of energy per surface area that the system can provide overall.”

The Varennes Library, in a suburb of Montreal, is a net-zero building. The BIPV panels in its roof provide both power and some heating. (Concordia University)

Challenges to Overcome

There are still much to do in terms of regulating BIPVs and educating the trades people including architects who need to create unique building designs that can maximize benefits of the BIPVs so this becomes mainstream. As well the up front cost for BIPVs is quite high, so there needs to be ways to make them more affordable, with incentives, mass production and better understanding of their cost savings over time. Mitrex’s plan is to bring its products to the point that they can be offered at no up-front cost to customers — instead, customers would pay for the electricity generated over the panels’ lifetime, (similar to the way geothermal projects are often funded in condos). That sounds fantastic.

Some of the Canadian companies making BIPVs are:

  1. PV Technical Services-offers access to solar shingles

This Ontario house has solar shingles developed by PV Technical Services, based in St. George-Brant County, Ont. (PV Technical Services)

2. Mitrex-opening a factory in July in Toronto Mitrex makes solar windows, and roofing. It makes cladding and plans to make highway sound barriers. Those are two things that are often made of concrete, which has a higher carbon footprint than glass and silicon BIPV panels.

The company also worked on a five-storey residence at Red Deer College that’s covered with solar glass cladding on three sides — 545 panels in all.

3. Kuby Energy-created the glass skylights of the sun-filled atrium of the Edmonton Convention Centre, which represents the largest BIPV installation in Canada. (Kuby Renewable Energy); will sell Tesla solar roof and sells Tesla Powerwalls.

This is the unique Edmonton Convention Centre Atrium from the outside. (Kuby Renewable Energy)

“Building Integrated Photovolataics will definitely take off as more people realize it’s a viable technology,” said Yereniuk, Director of Operations for Kuby Renewable Energy. “The industry is changing very fast and technology is rapidly growing and advancing, and costs are rapidly coming down.”

https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/bipv-solar-1.6044485

Floating Solar Panels

Here is another way solar panels are becoming remarkably versatile. In locations that have little space to put solar panels, like Japan, panels can sit on the surface of bodies of water as floating panels. Once you get past the idea of water and electricity in close proximity, the concept has a number of added benefits, like blocking sunlight on the water to reduce algae blooms, reducing evaporation of water, and possibly even offsetting climate change. It is estimated that placing solar panels on 1% of Africa’s reservoirs could double the continent’s annual hydropower capacity. To date India, China and South Korea boast the biggest, most impressive, floating solar panel installations.

CBC What on Earth May 27, 2021

Peel and Stick Solar Panels

Singapore-based Maxeon Solar Technologies has announced that it will commercially release its MAXEON AIR SOLAR PANELS this summer. The company says these panels are frameless, thin, lightweight, and conformable, with efficiency and performance the same as standard solar panels.

“Basically, the Air is a solar panel sticker, or, as Maxeon describes it, “peel and stick,” so the panels can be installed directly on a roof’s surface without racking, anchors, or ballast and are engineered to conform to uneven roof surfaces. No metal frame or heavy glass are used in the panel. The installed weight is around 6 kg (13 pounds) per square meter, which is less than half of conventional systems. As well they are certified for fire resistance.”

“The cells within the panels include a solid metal foundation and stress-relieved cell interconnects. That protects against corrosion and enables fault-tolerant circuits that allow energy flow, even with cracked cells. The Air panels feature an efficiency rating of 20.9%, a low power-temperature coefficient, shade tolerance, wide spectral response, and hot-spot resistance. Maxeon Air panels will be used in selected projects in Europe in the second half of 2021 and general product availability is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2022.”

This article was by Michelle Lewis on May 19, 2021 – https://bit.ly/2TlJ3Wk.

We hope that reading about these options makes you excited about a future with solar panels in it.

Our Guest Blogger’s Practical Considerations for Going Solar

Thank you and welcome to Guest Blogger, Edmund, for these “insider” insights on practical considerations for going solar. While he does not have an installation of his own, we asked Edmund if he would be willing to share his expertise and insights with us, offered below, from the perspective of his background as an electrical engineer who now does communications work for a Canadian solar company. We thank him for his generosity and hope this informative and insightful piece will help many more of us ‘go solar,’ and with greater knowledge and confidence!


“Interest in solar is on the upswing, with the growing green energy movement and an
increased interest in relocating to remote areas. There’s also been a general downward
trend in the costs of solar systems over the years (2021 is an exception, however, as
prices of some basic materials like copper have increased, along with a general shortage
of silicon chips which has also increased prices).


If you are thinking about going solar, with many different ways to incorporate solar in
your home, cottage or cabin, trailer or even RV or boat, how do you choose from all of
the available solutions
?

Having a green source of energy may be foremost in your mind,
but there are other things to consider, such as how exactly do you want to use the power,
the up front costs, your need to have reliable power, your ultimate carbon footprint, and
the payback period (if any).


The following diagram shows the elements of a solar system. There are many things
beyond the basic solar panels to capture energy from the sun. Many are optional:

  • It may or may not have a grid connection.
  • A back-up power source is optional (such as a generator or wind turbine).
  • Having battery energy storage may be optional, and there are
    different types of batteries that you may use.
  • The number of solar panels you use is variable. And the circuitry (inverter) for converting your energy source(s) to 120 V AC for your devices depends on the energy sources employed.

Your options are tied mainly to whether or not a grid connection is available, as well as
what you want to do with your system. It’s easiest to break them down into three broad
categories:

On-Grid System


If you have a grid connection, your aim may be to replace some or all grid power with
solar power. The simplest configuration is a set of solar panels, plus circuitry that
enables you to sell your solar-generated power back to the grid. You don’t have to rewire
your home electrical panel (which in turn supplies your outlets) because you are
maintaining your grid connection to power it. The simplicity comes at the cost of
function: if the grid goes down, you lose power despite having solar panels, and
furthermore your circuitry must ensure that it stops delivering power back to the grid
during the outage. On-grid systems are among the earliest and most common; however
lately their limitations have become evident in areas affected by outages caused by the
increasing incidences of wildfires and/or floods.

Off-Grid System


There are times where a grid connection is not available – such as a new construction in a
remote location where getting power from the grid is difficult or costly. Or maybe you
simply want to become independent of the grid. In this case you would connect solar
panels to charging circuitry which transfers energy to a set of batteries; the batteries are
in turn connected to your home devices via inverter circuitry that transforms the battery
power to 120 V AC needed by your home devices. The addition of batteries, charger, and
inverter are significant extra components but they are necessary for an off-grid system.
You will have to calculate how much energy you require every day and match it with the
amount of energy your solar panels can supply and that your batteries can store. Plus,
you have to add additional battery capacity to keep your home running on days when
there is no sun. If you need sustained power during the winter months, then you will
need to further increase the number of solar panels so to capture sufficient energy from
the shortened daylight hours.


An off-grid system can be supplemented with a back-up energy source. This can be
replace the additional solar panels and/or battery capacity for providing energy during the
dark days. This is of course an additional expense; and typically this takes the form of a
generator which in addition burns diesel and creates noise. So while this may be a
necessity if you want to guarantee that you always have power when you need it, it may
not be something that you want to add to your system. Other options for back-up energy
include adding a wind turbine and dedicated charger to feed the batteries in parallel with
the solar panels, but this quite an expensive and not as common option.
If you are constructing a remote home from scratch, it’s a good idea to install your off-
grid system as soon as possible. This way you can use it to power-up some of the
equipment used to build the home itself!

Hybrid System


A hybrid system is a basic off-grid system (with solar panels and batteries), but with a
grid connection available to charge the batteries for the times when there isn’t sufficient
sunlight available to meet your energy needs. This is a relatively simple way to go off-
grid while still being backed up by the grid, so no need for a noisy back-up generator. Some
hybrid systems also give you the option of selling your solar power back to the grid.
A hybrid system is a good way to get started with solar energy and retrofit an existing
building – you can initially depend on the grid, but then gradually decrease that
dependence by adding panels and battery capacity as you wish. Just make sure that you
have a system which is expandable, and/or a plan in place for it.

These 3 configurations are a simplification – within each category there are further details
and variations, but hopefully this gives an overall view that you can use as a starting
point.

Once you’ve decided which configuration you want (off-grid, on-grid, hybrid) there are
more things to decide. Do you do it yourself (DIY) or not? These days, there are kits available
which can simplify the number of parts that you need to buy and which reduce the set-up
for the most part to plugging in panels and batteries (as well as mounting solar panels of
course). But, keep in mind that it is still a serious electrical installation where local laws, regulations and guidelines are followed: you may need official approval to do the work, and be required to use certified
components. Especially if you are altering your electrical panel and you are not a DIYer, it may be a
good idea to get help from a certified electrician.

When choosing solar panels, there’s a wide range of prices and capacities. You may want
to consider which ones have the best warranty (some go up to 20 years). There are
increasingly higher power panels available that allow you to generate more power in the
same area if you have limited roof or ground area for them, while also requiring less
racking/mounting equipment. For example 360 Watt panels are now available, whereas at
one time 300 Watts used to be closer to the norm a couple years ago. If you are using the
in a boat or RV, you may have no choice but to use flexible panels which not only fit the
shape of your vehicle but also withstand vibrations better.


If you are using batteries, the selection is a complex calculation. Traditional lead acid
batteries are much cheaper, but their life time can be significantly shorter – they may need
replacing in a few years depending on the number of charges/discharges they are subject
to. Lithium batteries last much longer with deeper charging/discharging cycles and
weight less. The warranties on the cells can go up to 8 years. So lithium is technically
superior in almost every respect, but the up front cost of lithium is at least double that of
lead acid; with the longer lifetime they usually cost less in the long term.

Another thing to calculate, somehow, is the environmental cost in the
mining/manufacturing/disposal of any batteries that you use. These costs are changing
all the time but it is something to be aware of.


So best of luck to you if you are wanting to go solar. While it is a major undertaking, the
positive is that there are more and more options available.”

Keep in mind, for solar roofing there is the potential for $5600 in Greener Home Grants available over the next seven years from the Canadian Government, and for more information on eligibility and applying see our blog post from last week – here’s a quick link to help get you going – https://bit.ly/354KL0P. Good luck!