Photovoltaics: building material of the future

Sensemaking / Photovoltaics: building material of the future

11 Feb 2011

Just how pervasive will PV become?

The days where we simply slapped a brace of photovoltaic (PV) panels on our roofs as an afterthought will soon be gone. Instead, PV will be a staple of our infrastructure, integrated into our pavements, roads, walls and windows. At least, that's where a range of new developments is heading – and, given the space constraints faced by over-populated cities, it's a trend to be welcomed.

Two Spanish companies have teamed up to produce a concept PV pavement tile. Onyx Solar – which specialises in strong PV glass as a construction material for walls and facades – and Butech, a subsidiary of Porcelanosa Grupo, designed the tile with terraced rooftops and other public spaces in mind. Made of solar glass laid over a ceramic base, the tile can easily withstand the weight of pedestrians and furniture, enabling architects to combine energy generation with recreational space.

Similarly, the US start-up Solar Roadways has developed a prototype PV panel for integration into road surfaces, following a $100,000 grant from the Department of Energy (DOE).

The design comprises three layers: a base to house the wiring and data cables; a middle layer to hold the PV modules, LEDs and supercapacitors; and a reinforced glass surface, designed to match the traction of asphalt. The idea is that the electricity generated would feed directly into LED road markings, as well as linking to the grid. Solar Roadways anticipates a second round of DOE funding to turn the design into a commercial product.

But with photovoltaics integrated into the very stuff of our floors, walls, roads and roofs, upgrades may prove a tiresome task.

"Building integrated certainly looks nicer [than an add-on]", says Anne Wheldon of the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, "but once you've integrated the PV, you are stuck with it: you can't substitute it for a more advanced model, or take it with you when you move house!"

On the other hand, if integrated PV becomes standard, then wherever you go, it will be there already.

- Lowana Veal

Image credits: MAlbuquerque / istock

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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