The home of the first commercial solar cell is now powered by futuristic see-through solar technology.
The $200 million renovation of the former Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, New Jersey, includes the largest PV glass skylight currently in the United States at a quarter-mile long. The skylight filters sun through to the atrium, the focal point of the building. The building, designed between 1957 and 1962, looks like a relic with its concrete and steel makeup, but the open-air concourse illuminated mostly by natural light looks like a scene from the future.
“Bell Works is already home to an extraordinary community of innovators, and it’s our job to continue to innovate the building commensurately,” said Ralph Zucker, president of Somerset Development in a press release.
The new name of the 2 million-sq-ft building is Bell Works, and Somerset Development is transforming the once-abandoned home of eight Nobel Prize winners into a tech-forward, multi-use “metroburb.” The new structure will contain offices, retail, dining, recreation and more.
“They really needed to replace the skylight because it was leaking everywhere,” said Diego Cuevas, VP of global business development for the Americas at Onyx Solar Energy. “It was really old. So the important thing for them was to maintain and preserve the same aesthetics as the original skylight.”
Onyx Solar worked with the building architects to create custom PV glass skylights that resembled the previous glass. Onyx used its amorphous silicon (a-Si) solar cells, manufactured in Spain, between two plates of glass to create the skylight. Every glass panel in the new skylight is a PV panel. Amorphous silicon cells were not included in the latest solar tariffs.
The glass has a light gray coloring to match the original installation, but it’s still almost fully transparent. The entire skylight generates up to 175 kW of solar power and works well under low-light conditions and a range of temperatures.
The a-Si glass also works well in alternative orientations. Even if it’s not facing south, it will make the most out of diffused light and radiation. It can start producing power earlier in the day and keep producing later at night than conventional crystalline panels.
“It’s less efficient than the traditional crystalline silicon solar cells, [but] it has some good advantages that will make up for that difference,” Cuevas said.
Onyx Solar creates custom PV glass solutions for architects around the world.
“We coordinate with them and we help them design their building with the PV glass,” Cuevas said. Usually a glazing contractor installs the glass and an electrician does the wiring.
“It’s all about coordination between both trades so they can work in parallel, and at the same time that the glazing contractor is physically installing the glass, the electrical contractor will come and do the electrical interconnection,” Cuevas said.
Other than the unique teamwork between glazer and electrician, PV glass installations are usually similar to conventional solar installations. The Bell Works project was complex because it called for a total of 24 different glazings to make up the different schemes of the large skylight.
Onyx just supplied the panels in this project—Abender Electric completed the installation and electrical work. Cuevas said finding a wiring solution for the massive skylight was actually quite simple. In the original skylight structure, there was already a makeshift tray built in underneath the glass panels. Abender was able to run the wires through that tray to conceal them from view below.
Each PV glass comes with a small junction box that is visible from below. The junction boxes have two wires—one positive and one negative. They also have standard MC4 connectors, so they work like a standard plug-and-play system. Wires are interconnected to form different strings of glass PV panels, then all the wires run up to the roof where the inverters are located. The array is connected to 12 SMA inverters, and the energy produced feeds back into the grid.
Cuevas said using PV glass instead of regular glass was a no-brainer for this project because of the tax incentives. PV glass actually ended up being cheaper than traditional glass thanks to New Jersey’s generous solar incentives and the federal ITC. Aside from the cost benefits, Cuevas said the architects felt adding this high-tech aspect paid homage to the past of this historic building.
“The place where the first commercial solar cell was created now incorporates the technology of this century,” Cuevas said.