Integrating Solar Energy into Modern Architecture and Design

June 13, 2024

Modern architecture has become a lot about self-sustainability and efficiency. With that, solar panels are now a backbone of sustainable building design. Let’s at various ways photovoltaics can be used to blend with our homes, offices and towns naturally.

Standard solar panels become fancier

The problem that architects and landscape designers have with standard solar panels is that, for one, large PV projects can take up a lot of land space. For instance, 1 Megawatt of solar power requires 5-10 acres of land if you include roads and necessary spacing between modules. This makes it especially hard to use solar power in cities where there's already not much free space available, except for rooftops. With small systems, some people were concerned about the way solar arrays looked. For example, a standard 6-kilowatt rooftop system requires fifteen 400 watt solar panels. Whether or not they are going to look good on your house depends on the design of your roof, the design of PV modules and skill and creativity of your solar installer.

While some to this day see standard solar panels as something that hurts the appearance of a house, PV modules have become much more stylish over the last decade. There are many brands that pay special attention to how their PV modules look on the roof. Blue polycrystalline panels slowly become a thing of the past and get replaced by all-black monocrystalline panels. Manufacturers like Solaria, Maxeon and Sunpower adopted shingled solar panel design which makes the surface of a PV module much more uniform and appealing to an eye. LONGi Solar has presented a line of solar panels that come in different colors so that you can pick those that will look good on your roof.

Building-integrated photovoltaics got cheaper

When it comes to the question of how to properly blend solar power and building design, the idea of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) always comes up. BIPVs are special solar materials that can replace regular building parts like roofs or windows. Integrated photovoltaics save money because they cut down on the need for separate solar panel installations. This makes them a good choice for sustainable building design since they lower costs for materials and construction. Plus, they are a good option when you want to conceal a solar system not to harm the building’s appearance. This matters a lot when it comes to historic places or fancy neighborhoods with specific design rules.

Integrated solar panels have been around since the 1970s. The reason why they started to truly shine in the last decade or so is that the cost of photovoltaics has dropped by 80-90% in the last 10-15 years. In the 2010s, NREL experts expressed doubts about whether BIPVs can be cost-competitive in comparison to regular solar panels. While a common PV system in general is still much cheaper, we see BIPVs more and more often. BIPVs in particular play a big role in developing zero-energy buildings in Europe and America.

Solar shingles, roofs, windows

Currently, the most common places for integrated solar elements are carports and parking shade structures. An example of integrated photovoltaics that is growing in popularity among regular homeowners are roofs made of solar shingles and tiles. While presenting Solar Roof in October 2016, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, predicted that roofs made out of standard roofing materials may soon become obsolete.

Transparent solar windows are among the most promising developments in photovoltaics. With advancements in transparent solar cell technology, windows can now capture sunlight and turn it into electricity without blocking the view. This innovation is a game-changer for green buildings, as it enables them to produce renewable energy while still looking good and improving energy efficiency.

Agrivoltaics help farmers grow food and pay bills

BIPVs are one example of dual-use solar when PV modules perform another function in addition to generating electricity. Another one is agrivoltaics. Agrivoltaics is a way to use land for both farming and harnessing solar power. The solar panels are elevated so crops can grow and animals can graze underneath. This setup also gives shade, which helps animals and plants that don't like too much sun.

More and more farmers in the US are turning to agrivoltaics. In 2021, these dual-use solar farms produced around 14 Megawatts of power, according to the Department of Energy. The US had a total solar power capacity of 120 Megawatts in 2021. However, one challenge for agrivoltaic developers is the high cost of building raised platforms for solar panels.

Solar panels are architecture of future

Back in 2002, there were just 2 gigawatts of solar power installed worldwide, which is barely enough for a tiny city. But in the past 20 years, the total solar power capacity has grown massively, increasing 500 times and reaching 1 terawatt in 2021. By 2027, solar power is expected to surpass hydropower, gas, and coal in total installed capacity, becoming the biggest source of electricity globally.

Solar power is here to stay. However, the industry has to somehow solve the problem of land footprint and space efficiency of photovoltaics. This is where architects and engineers should join their efforts. Solar buildings, roofs, glass, agrivoltaics should become cheaper and more widespread so that everyone around the world can use them.


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