BIPVCo seeks to sell the 'little black dress' of rooftop solar

BIPVCo seeks to sell the 'little black dress' of rooftop solar

A woman in a Coco Chanel-inspired little black dress with pearls
ShutterstockTatjana Jemeljanova
This building-integrated solar maker claims inspiration from the likes of Coco Chanel.

It's not often that solar panels and Kim Kardashian are mentioned in the same breath, particularly by an industrial entrepreneur with a background in steel making. But for Paul Bates, chief operating officer at BIPVCo, it is the easiest way to describe why his solar roofing company stands out from the competition.

"Certain houses with solar panels on the roof  — it looks like they have one of Kim Kardashian's rings stuck on the roof!" he told BusinessGreen. "It's bling, it looks awful. What we are looking for is Coco Chanel  — understated elegance, the little black dress, if you will. It's unobtrusive but it's there, it's stylish and it's also functional."

Bates believes the "Coco Chanel" of solar roofing comes in the form of BIPVCo's technology, which uses thin film PV technology to create an all-in-one solar roofing solution that can either be incorporated into new build houses, factories and commercial units or retrofitted using its "peel and stick" product.

Not only does building-integrated PV (BIPV) technology look better than roof-mounted panels, Bates argued, but it also offers practical benefits too. For example, it is more flexible for modern planners to work with, suitable for use on flat or curved roofs, and the thin film technology BIPVCo uses delivers higher efficiencies at low light levels.

It is also, at 2.2kg per meter squared, much lighter than traditional silicon panels, which weigh in around 18kg per meter squared. This means it can be installed on buildings unable to take the weight of traditional solar panels, Bates said. "The roof is your panel," he said. "That makes an awful lot of difference."

However, as with all things, such benefits come at a cost. Bates estimated BIPVCo's solar roofing is around 10 to 15 percent more expensive than traditional silicon panels would be for the same capacity.

Yet he is confident BIPV technology soon will become a mainstay of the solar market, as architects and planners catch on to its benefits and companies taking a long-term view on the energy market are convinced by the energy- and carbon-saving opportunities afforded by self-generation.

Potential clients might also be seduced by the story of BIPVCo itself, the tale of a company that has battled through tough times to emerge as a rare beast in the modern British economy — a home-grown manufacturing firm.

It began life in 2007 as a research project run by steel giant Tata Steel, which was seeking to explore new opportunities to monetize its steel roofing business. But the 2008 financial crash threw a major spanner in the works, and the project effectively was forced into hibernation as Tata struggled to deal with the fallout of the crisis.

"The world came to a stop," Bates recalled. "The credit crunch came along and the building industry in Europe, and indeed the world, not only shrunk but actually stopped. So it put great strain on the Tata finance."

Tata decided to "hive out" the business to Bates and two colleagues, who "kept the thing alive" on meager resources — and the support of Swansea University — until 2015, when it received a sizeable cash injection from two private investors.

Now, with the help of these investments — and the surging renewables market globally — BIPVCo finally can start putting its technology to test in the real world.

Bates insisted its roofing solutions are applicable to a broad range of markets, from industrial factories to residential home extensions. One of its first pilot projects, completed last year, was an "Active Classroom," delivered in collaboration with Swansea University, which owns 5 percent of BIPVCo. The classroom features BIPVCo's solar roofing panels alongside a living wall, saltwater batteries and smart heating that adjusts automatically in response to daily weather forecasts.

Meanwhile, its first commercial project has just popped up on a new brewery in Nigeria owned by drinks giant SAB Miller. SAB Miller approached BIPVCo about its technology, Bates said, after deciding that solar represented the best way to combat the power cuts and high diesel prices that plague the Nigerian energy market, as well as an opportunity to curb the brewer's carbon footprint. The integrated system also appealed because of its simple installation and the fact the panels are not vulnerable to theft once in place.

"People steal panels," Bates said. "They don't steal a roof."

The 2kWp pilot system is up and running on the brewery's roof, and so far everything is working well, Bates said. He sees emerging economies in Africa and Asia as prime markets for innovative clean energy products such as solar roofing, as despite their challenges he believes players in these markets have a healthier attitude to risk. 

"In Western Europe the building industry is very conservative," he said. "That conservatism is to do with not being able to accept any risk whatsoever. Yet innovation means you have to be able to have a go, take a risk on a new invention. These emerging economies are looking to be on the cutting edge. They have more of a pragmatic view on innovation."

BIPVCo certainly has grand plans for the company, with a 2017 target to install 7MW of solar capacity by the end of the year — a "massive uplift" compared to 2016, according to Bates. There are already some big installs in this year's pipeline, he said, but the projects are tightly under wraps until the customer is ready to announce them.

In the longer term, the aim is to deliver 40MW of annual production capacity and add 100 more manufacturing jobs by 2021, a high-skills manufacturing base Bates believes the government should be doing more to encourage. "We can't as a country sell hamburgers and insurance to each other," he said. "We have to be able to make stuff, because we have to export. We will never export low-tech stuff like a tin can to China. But for more high tech, like renewables, this is what we need to be concentrated on as a country."

However, BIPVCo will have to move fast to corner a share of the solar roofing market. In October, SolarCity — the solar firm now owned by Elon Musk's Tesla — unveiled a new solar glass roof tile, which Musk claims provides better insulation than a standard roof, and also can incorporate heating elements to keep its surface clear of snow so it generates electricity throughout the year.

Meanwhile, at this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, California start-up Sunflare launched a flexible solar panel that it claims will stick to almost any surface, promising to turn anything from garden sheds to gazebos into sun-harvesting machines. Like BIPVCo, Sunflare's technology is based on copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar panels, which are lighter and more flexible than silicon-based alternatives, and Sunflare reckons its stick-on solution works out about 1 cent per watt cheaper than traditional silicon solar to install on existing roofs.

Bates insisted BIPVCo is not afraid of a little competition. "Competition breeds innovation," he said. "When you haven't got any impetus to do better, you sit back on your laurels." He said the key is to keep adapting in the face of a changing market.

Bates believes BIPVCo's close industry ties — the firm is still based on the site of Tata Steel's Flintshire factory — gives it an advantage in this area.

"I spent 40 years of my life painting steel," Bates said. "We know coatings inside out." The firm is also primed for further innovation in the solar industr: "We have developed an architecture into our modules — as the next generation of PV technologies emerge (such as perovskites) we can adapt that into our module technology."

With market trends in its favor and a track record of successful installs starting to emerge, BIPVCo is growing in confidence as each month goes by.

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