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Solar shingles, redux, a la GAF and Google

Can North America’s largest roofing company nail it when it comes to integrating solar energy with shingles? And what are the implications for commercial buildings?

GAF Energy Timberline Solar Energy Shingle

What’s notable about the Timberline Solar Energy Solar shingle from GAF Energy is that it’s really and truly a shingle, which can be nailed into the roof. Image courtesy of GAF Energy

This article was adapted from Climate Tech Weekly, a free newsletter focused on climate technologies.

While the rest of the incoming climate tech pitches tapered off dramatically during the year-end holiday, you can expect a smattering of consumer-catered introductions this week pegged to the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  

One of the more notable launches from my perspective is a new solar shingle line from GAF Energy, part of Standard Industries, which is North America’s largest roofing products company. The product this week snagged what is essentially a CES Best in Show award, its Innovation Award for Smart Cities. I know, I know. Solar roofs have been kind of a non-starter over the past several years (even Tesla has stumbled) for reasons related to both design shortcomings and costs. But GAF Energy’s entry into this market — along with some innovative experiments by the energy and facilities team at Google — could signal a shift in both aesthetics and economics.

What’s so notable about the new Timberline Solar Energy Solar shingle from GAF Energy is that it’s really and truly a shingle, one that can be nailed onto a roof along with the other materials that protect your house from the elements. That means it can be installed by traditional roofing contractors — although you still need a qualified electrician to connect them — and GAF has access to plenty of both. 

Consider this: One out of every four of the roughly 5 million roofs installed every year on U.S. homes come from GAF. The residential roofing industry is about 20 times larger than the rack-mounted, solar rooftop sector, which installs an average of between 250,000 and 300,000 systems annually. Given those two data points, GAF Energy President Martin DeBono figures that if his company can convince about 10 percent of the homeowners replacing their roof in a given year to opt for the solar version, it could quickly become the biggest U.S. rooftop solar company. "Our focus is on the people who are going to be getting a new roof," DeBono told me.

Aside from a massive sales and installation channel, DeBono figures the company has several other advantages over traditional rackmount solar installations. Its product — which has achieved a UL 7103 certification, covering building integrated photovoltaics — is less than a quarter inch thick, meaning that it can blend in easily with the other shingles on the roof. It goes on quickly: in a matter of one or two days for a 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot roof, compared with the weeks it can take for the alternative. The waterproofing is built in, and the warranty covers both the solar panels and leaks — you can’t always say the same for traditional installations.

As for the output, DeBono said it’s comparable to other rooftop systems (dependent on the solar conditions, of course) as is the expense. In other words, the GAF Energy solar-integrated roof would cost about the same as a traditional roof plus a rackmounted solar array. (He wouldn’t get into specifics.)

You’ll see GAF Energy concentrate first on the East Coast, Texas and California, in places where there is a high concentration of homes with shingles. (The shingles themselves will be manufactured in San Jose, California, with glass from China, solar cells from Thailand and other materials from the U.S.) And you’ll see the company come to market with a partnership designed for those interested in adding energy storage and EV charging to their solar installations. GAF Energy is also teaming up with solar leasing provider PosiGen

Google chases the dragon

Right now, GAF Energy isn’t selling a solar shingle product meant for commercial buildings, although that is a future aspiration, given the growing architectural interest in building integrated photovoltaic technologies (not just for roofs, but also for facades and windows). Revenue for this particular segment of the market is expected to rise on a compound annual basis by about 15 percent.

Google is exploring the possibilities of building integrated PV with a "dragonscale" solar roof design at the new campus buildings — Charleston East and Bay View — it has been building in Mountain View, California, near the original Googleplex. It’s part of the company’s evolving 24/7 carbon-free energy vision. 

The company’s energy team worked with a Swiss Manufacturer, SunStyle, to design textured, prismatic panels measuring roughly 3 feet by 5 feet that could be installed in an overlapping pattern across the curving roofs and facades of the relatively low-profile buildings. The two buildings will use about 90,000 shingles, with a capacity of 7 megawatts.

The dragonscale solar roof on Google's new campus buildings

Google is exploring the possibilities of building integrated PV with a “dragonscale” solar roof design at the new campus buildings. Image courtesy of Google


When I spoke with Asim Tahir, district and renewable energy lead with Google, about the installation, he said one goal of the projects was to ensure that the installation was both beautiful and efficient. "Our aim was to show it can be done. We would be happy if others looked at this and thought about how to take this idea and adapt it for themselves," Tahir told me.

From an energy standpoint, the fact that the panels point in many directions helps the Google buildings capture "the power of the sun from multiple angles," Tahir wrote in a blog about the installation. "Unlike a flat roof, which generates peak power at the same time of the day, our dragonscale solar skin will generate power during an extended amount of daylight hours."

The panels will contribute about 40 percent of the buildings’ annual electricity needs. Google is using its wind power purchases, along with North America’s largest geothermal installation, to work toward its carbon-free energy commitment. 

When I asked Tahir about how his team justifies the costs of these approaches, he said the models they have been using for the new campus consider construction holistically rather than in individual silos for the facades, structural and mechanical systems. That way, it can evaluate the potential impacts of different processes — such as heating and cooling — from end to end. "We are answerable to our finance colleagues for responsible use of our capital," he said. "What we do have, however, is an appetite for a little bit of adventures." 

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