Solar technology dates back to the 1800s when Edmond Becquerel discovered the “photovoltaic effect.” In the mid 1900s, the first solar cells were developed. While there have been incremental improvements in panel cell efficiency since those early days, for the most part, the way we install solar has remained relatively unchanged for decades.
With recent price reductions of silicon-based solar panels, industry innovators have shifted focus toward designs that make solar faster, easier and less expensive to install. Following is an overview of some of these innovations.
Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV)
With a goal of generating electricity from common building surfaces, the industry has pursued technologies that deliver on the BIPV goal. The most widely recognized and deployed BIPV materials are roof tiles that generate solar power, integrate to the roof of the home, and have a similar appearance to surrounding roof materials. More recently, we have seen photovoltaic glass units (PVGU) introduced to the market. PVGU promises to provide transparent materials for windows and skylights that deliver a higher power density than existing BIPV technologies while delivering on the integration goal that BIPV aims to achieve.
Fully Integrated, Plug & Play Panels
As solar panel prices have dropped, the balance-of-system costs have increased as a portion of each installation and now represent nearly 50% of total solar system costs. New designs in mounting and racking systems offer an opportunity where innovation can have a huge impact on both labor and hardware costs. However, most of the innovations over the last few decades have been focused on improving individual component parts rather than taking a whole system integration approach. Much like the computer industry integrated external components into a single device delivering an easy to use, out of the box experience; the opportunity for solar power systems in today’s environment is to achieve similar efficiencies, which in turn will significantly reduce costs and drive market penetration.
One example of how integration has evolved for solar power systems can be seen with the introduction of fully automated “plug-and-play” solar panels. This leading solution eliminates 80% of the parts required to install ordinary solar power systems through integrating the racking, mounting, electrical wiring and grounding directly into the PV laminate. By simply mounting these panels directly to the roof, an instant connection of both electrical and ground components can now be made automatically, thereby reducing installation labor costs by 50%.
Other advancements in integrated panel technology include factory integration of microinverters directly into these plug-and-play panels, allowing installers to leverage a complete UL certified AC panel that is faster and easier to install. This requires less solar installation training, less system engineering and enables further reductions in BOS and labor, helping to improve profit margins that have been reduced by shrinking system costs.
Regardless of the headwinds facing the industry, innovations in solar continue to simplify installation and make solar easier, faster and less expensive to install, enabling the industry as a whole to deliver clean and affordable solar electricity for all.