In the past decade, the photovoltaic (PV) industry has experienced massive gains in technological innovation and production volume. But the market has been volatile, with international competition driving down the cost of solar panels along with the solvency of promising American manufacturers. Photovoltaics and its crystalline-silicon modules also face more and more competition from other technologies such as thin-film, silicon-free solar cells, which cost less to produce. When just one hour of sunlight contains the energy needed to power our planet, it’s hard to imagine that new technologies capturing our most inherent power source won’t continue to heat up.
Mike Nowicki, SmithGroupJJR
Although solar-film technology has gained market share, SmithGroupJJR electrical engineer Michael Nowicki, based in Detroit, says that crystalline PV panels will continue to dominate. He’s excited about the potential of many recently introduced products, including Dow Powerhouse Solar Shingles, which “integrate PV into the traditional roofing shingle,” he says, and Konarka Technologies’ Power Plastic, an organic PV material that can be fitted to curves. Lumos’s LSX frameless PV module eliminates the typical panel’s metal frame and “creates a clean, sleek appearance,” Nowicki says.
Most promising to Nowicki is Graphene, a lattice of carbon atoms that “has much better electrical, mechanical, and thermal properties” than traditional semiconductor materials. The material is stronger, he says, and “PV made from Graphene would be cheaper because they’d use less material to make a substrate electrically conductive.” The PV could be deposited on many materials, such as glass. “One article talked about applying it to clothes. It sounds futuristic, but in reality, I don’t know how far it is,” Nowicki says. “It would definitely change photovoltaics.”
Julian Astbury, Arup
For government-funded projects, Arup often encounters Buy America requirements for PV panels that can be a challenge. “Even though the U.S. market is growing,” says Julian Astbury, an associate principal in the firm’s Cambridge, Mass., office, “it’s not producing as technologically efficient panels as some of the Asian countries.” The United States also lags in PV deployment relative to its size. Germany has the world’s highest PV use even though the nation is at a higher latitude. “If they can make it work,” he says, “why can’t we?”
Astbury wonders whether past gains in efficiency are slowing. “If you look at a timeline of PVs against efficiency, you’ll find it’s actually plateaued,” he says. “Even though manufacturers are eking out an extra percent or half a percent, there isn’t a huge change.”
Instead, he thinks that thin-film solar systems may gain a larger market share. “It has a lower efficiency than traditional PV panels, but the big advantage is cheap production cost: You can use it in a lot more applications. People are starting to develop coatings or even a paint that could generate power at a very low cost. The hope is that we can get much more of it.”
Zorana Bosnic, HOK
For the range of projects coming through HOK, the firm has to watch solar-panel specifications carefully. “There isn’t really a silver bullet in terms of which panel you choose because they are changing so rapidly,” says Zorana Bosnic, the firm’s San Francisco–based sustainable design director. “All it takes is a project getting delayed for a few months,” she says, and the specs have to be rewritten.
The increase in PV use and applications can be attributed to technology as well as government subsidies, though the latter is waning, Bosnic says. “Certainly in California the rebates and incentives are greatly reduced compared to a few years ago.” Because panels can still be prohibitively expensive for clients, she says, power-purchase agreements (PPAs) in which a building owner can have rooftop PVs installed without “having to provide that up-front cost” are becoming more attractive. District- or utility-scale renewable-energy supplies might also be more broadly accepted in the future.
Bosnic thinks that thin-film technology is among the most exciting technologies even if it’s not as efficient in energy production as crystalline panels yet. “You can put it on the façade and still have the ability to look out.”
Scott Shively, DLR Group
Cost parity is key to solar’s ability to compete with fossil fuels—and to achieving the Architecture 2030 challenge of net-zero energy usage, says Scott Shively, AIA, DLR Group’s Phoenix-based principal. “The PV industry is working extremely hard to drive the price down,” he says. “Hundreds of manufacturers out there are doing everything they can to simplify and reduce their production cost to meet that goal.” To hit the 2030 threshold, Shively says, buildings will need to produce renewable energy on site: “Because of that, I think we’re going to just continue to see PVs evolve.”
Building owners will also need fewer PV panels as they reduce energy usage, Shively says. “Your energy-reduction efforts [should] go hand in hand with any PV arrays that you’d put on your building. We’ve seen this trend in the last 10 years in every market sector … where everybody’s focus now is in reducing their energy consumption.”
PV’s growing presence is evident in related industries such as roofing, Shively says. “The roofing industry has really stepped up with putting policies in place” to account for PVs in installations and warranties. He also sees panels used more often as shading devices and as weather protectants. “Most of your common panels—the mono- or polycrystalline—are designed to withstand 1-inch hail and 55-mph winds,” he says.