Every day the media seems to tout the latest developments in solar energy: Trade magazines and Twitter are filled with stories of new installations, technologies, and players entering the industry—as well as the missteps or successes of solar manufacturers.
Solar, as a whole, is certainly not easy. Solar-energy solutions require massive efforts by developers and other project parties involved to secure creative funding opportunities. These solutions also require manufacturers to produce more cost-effective and more-efficient modules, utility companies to manage the affect on the grid, and electrical engineers to make sure it all works.
Despite these challenges, solar installations are gaining traction in more projects, and architectural team members are bringing more solutions to the table. Architects are designing viable solar arrays that are functional, aesthetically pleasing, and which offer real potential for new revenue streams. They are integrating architecture and new renewable-energy technologies for both new construction and renovation of existing facilities so that building and system work as a whole, not as separate parts.
Part of this design and technology merger flows from the push to meet the AIA 2030 Challenge carbon-neutrality goals, which target and promote clean-energy production on site. Renewable energy production is often also used in applications for LEED certification.
But there are real design challenges that remain, most notably those posed by the economies of alternative energy and the ultimate effect on the built environment:
Challenge Number One: Grid Parity
The aim of the renewables industry is to achieve grid parity: This means generating electricity from alternative-energy sources at a cost that is equal or less than the price of power from the grid. The renewables industry doesn’t deny that it is more costly to produce the same amount of electricity via photovoltaics than to pull it off the grid. But as with any innovation, the technological advances come in finding ways to achieve what has never been achieved before, and it is only a matter of time before the cost barriers are overcome.
Part of the equation in achieving grid parity is finding the most cost-effective ways to install photovoltaic units. Typical installations use roof- or ground-mounted systems, of which roof-mounted on existing structures is the most cost effective compared to the costs of designing, constructing, and installing an array on a new site. The challenge with roof mounting is maintaining roof warranties and limiting structural loads.
Ground-mounted systems offer the ability to create larger arrays. Typically, they are placed on wide tracts of undeveloped land on the fringe of urban areas. The risk is the potential threat of urban sprawl reaching the site. In this scenario, investments in ground-mounted units are then taking up valuable real estate for the next 20 years, or through the life-cycle of the system.
Elevated structures are a third installation method for functional, multipurpose solar systems. These can be simple, covered parking structures or even taller superstructures that span large areas and provide higher clearances. My firm, DLR Group, has successfully used superstructures with a variety of local school districts to cover parking lots, playgrounds, and outdoor basketball courts. Superstructures provide support for the photovoltaic arrays and new shading for students at play while minimizing heat-island effect during summer months.
Challenge Number Two: Design Must Be More Than Panels On A Roof.
Given that solar panels are not traditionally viewed as an attractive design element, architects must become the champions of the built solar environment by working them in in creative and artistic ways.
DLR Group has recently designed several photovoltaic installations at NFL stadiums across the country that are both funcational and visually intriguing. The solar-array design at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., for one, uses building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) panels to create the Solar Ring—a visual element encircling the top of the stadium. The BIPVs will generate 350,000 kWh per year, be illuminated with LED lighting, and programmed to display the signature blue and green colors of the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets. The Solar Ring also can be programmed in additional hues to meet the unique needs of events at MetLife, including concerts and college sporting contests. The power generated by the installation will flow into the overall stadium system.
Another application we did was the mounting of photovoltaic panels on the side of FedEx Field in Landover, Md., home of the Washington Redskins. These panels can be programmed for use as virtual display monitors to project sponsorship images, video, and other brand messaging to create additional revenue streams for owners. (Adding brand programming does not require additional power as lighting and branding options are done with high-efficiencly LEDs that are integrated into the panels.)
As the renewable-energy industry continues to evolve, designers will—and must—lead the way in integrating photovoltaics as part of the aesthetic design of facilities: A ubiquitous use of photovoltaics as true design elements in the built environment should be a goal. This will advance on-site power generation, the aims of Architecture 2030, and positively affect the experience of people in a new, renewable-energy built environment.
Scott Shively, AIA, is a principal in the Phoenix office of DLR Group.