Why solar is on the VERGE of a breakthrough

ShutterstockNatalia Sokko
Sunrise on the rocky seacoast of Finland.

The following is a sponsored story by Solaria.

The beauty of VERGE is that it is about optimizing systems, not components, through integration across disciplines. Few transitions embody the VERGE concept more readily than the shift to a distributed, renewable-powered electricity system.

Humans' global energy and environmental challenges are well known — there is a 99 percent chance that 2015 will eclipse 2014 as the warmest year on record, and 2016 is expected to be even warmer. These challenges increasingly will affect the way we do business as well as the profitability of that business.

To confront these problems, we need 21st century solutions, not retreads of 20th century ideas.

One antiquated system most in need of updating is our reliance on finite, centralized stocks of fossil energy, whose problems are increasingly apparent, to power the human enterprise.

The 21st century solution is to live off energy flows. The sun alone provides 2,000 times more energy than humans consume each year, while other renewables could provide over five times total human energy needs indefinitely.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was fond of declaring that it was "morning in America," and if the Gipper were around today even he might acknowledge that this applies to the U.S. solar industry as well.

Annual solar installations have grown from 850 MW just five years ago to more than 8,000 MW forecast for 2015, while generation efficiency has increased sixfold. The solar industry expects 2016 installations to grow 50 percent more, exceeding the Department of Energy forecast for 2035.

Much of this growth can be attributed to the precipitous drop in prices of solar PV systems, from $6 to $7 per installed watt in 2010 to $1.50 to $3.50 per installed watt today. A skilled and experienced installation industry continues to improve its efficiency. However, evidence from Germany indicates that costs can come down 40 to 50 percent more as the result of standardized systems, contracts and financing.

Another outdated idea is that the 21st-century solution (solar and renewables) somehow must adapt to 20th century systems (power grids and buildings), rather than the other way around. The solar industry has straddled the solution, installing about half its capacity on buildings and half in utility-scale systems.

From the centralized power grid perspective, the solution is to push increasingly smart electrons out to dumb, passive buildings to help them blunder through their daily existence. From this perspective, the emphasis on intelligence in the grid (such as smart meters) really is to provide better commodity consumption data to the supplier, not the consumer.

A 21st century solution focuses on energy services and not energy commodities. The grid of the future is a network of intelligent micro- and nano-grids that optimize their energy services through internal and shared information/analytics and electrons.

The recent huge growth in distributed energy — granted, it’s on a somewhat small base — is a sign that a modern solution is beginning to take shape.

Unfortunately, to date in the building sector, solar — in the form of building-applied photovoltaics, or BAPV — has been a bit of a green ornament, being hung either where it can’t be seen or where it can’t be ignored. It’s progress, but clearly an interim solution.

Where we will see the full impact of a long-term distributed energy solution  —  including price parity for solar —  is when photovoltaics actually get integrated into buildings that are holistically designed for them, rather than merely stapled on.  

Right now, the main thing preventing price parity of distributed solar energy services is the cost of plugging into old infrastructure. Solar arrays are native DC power producers and the majority of electricity using devices either are, or could be, native DC powered.

Yet we increase the cost of PV installations by 15 to 25 percent by requiring power conditioning and AC grid connection equipment, while decreasing their net output by 5 to 10 percent. To make matters worse, AC-to-DC power supplies increase the cost of native DC using equipment  such as computers, LEDs and most control systems —  while increasing total energy use in commercial buildings by up to 13 percent converting AC power back to DC.

A 25 to 35 percent swing in the cost of solar energy services would put it at grid parity in much of the United States. While there would be some cost in retrofitting our buildings and equipment to allow direct use of DC current, there should be little to no cost to design in and install native DC circuits for native DC equipment.

Building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) products, such as the Solaria BIPV laminate window, set the stage to accelerate the growth and impact of distributed solar energy. The difference between BIPV and BAPV is more than semantic and fundamentally changes both the cost and the effectiveness equation, finally ensuring that true net-zero buildings are possible at scale.

BIPV means that the power-generating product provides multiple functions, whereas the BAPV technology performs only one. In the case of Solaria, its technology provides shelter, daylighting, shading and power production all in one product.

With BIPV, marginal costs for power production are much lower, making solar electricity much more cost-effective, particularly if paired with dedicated DC circuitry and an internal micro-grid "dispatch" system to optimize energy service efficiency and cost. As a result, rather than passive recipients of the grid's largesse, buildings become an active participant in meeting energy service needs.

Because Solaria’s product does not compromise power production for visual quality and vice versa —  a 100,000 square-foot building could produce 1 to 2 kWh per square foot of floor area, which for a highly efficient building represents over half of annual energy consumption.

Similarly, a greenhouse fitted with Solaria’s BIPV system could supply all of the facility’s energy needs. Given the increasing imperative to reduce the energy and transportation footprint of our food system, close-in, energy self-sufficient or net-positive greenhouses could be a very welcome addition to the urban fabric.

At VERGE San Jose this year we will talk about the benefits and opportunities of BIPV at a Thursday breakout session: "Unlocking Assets through Optimized Solar Applications." We hope to see you there.