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It’s been solar maker Global Solar Energy’s ambition to be an early player in the building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) market, where solar cells can be embedded into building materials. The idea is that buildings and roofs can be built with the solar materials weaved right into them, lowering the cost and the time of the solar installation. Global Solar on Tuesday unveiled its new flexible solar panel that can be integrated into roofing membranes.
Called the PowerFLEX BIPV, Global Solar’s flexi-panel is a departure from the majority of the panels on the market today because it doesn’t use glass for insulation and comes without metal frames. Standard panels utilize glass to protect solar cells from moisture and other environmental elements that could seriously erode the performance over time (First Solar builds its cadmium-telluride panels with glass on top and bottom).
Global Solar’s panels also are different from conventional solar panels because they make use of copper-indium-gallium-selenide solar cells that lie on a thin layer of stainless steel sheet. CIGS is a combination that is particular susceptible to damage by moisture.
The panels can be built into roofing membranes or install by itself by laying them down on the roof. “After a thorough analysis of the solar roof products out there, we are able to deliver a high-power product,” said Jeff Britt, CEO of Global Solar.
Each Global Solar panel is 5.75 meters long by 0.5 meters wide, comes in ratings of up to 300 watts, and the cells have a 13.2 percent efficiency. The company said the aperture efficiency of the panel, a measure of only the area on the panel covered by cells, will achieve 12.6 percent. The total-area efficiency will hit as high as 10.7 percent. The full-panel efficiency is typically what manufactures provide, and it’s an important piece of information particularly if you need to figure out how many panels can fit in a tight space and what that system can produce.
Before creating the flexible panels for the BIPV market, Tucson, Ariz.-based Global Solar was mostly selling strings of its solar cells to panel manufacturers instead of assembling their own cells into panels. It has worked with Dow Chemical to design roof shingles, which Dow plans to launch next year. The company’s cells also have shown up on chargers made by customers and a contract manufacturer.
Global Solar is gunning for the market that has seen one large player so far – United Solar Ovonic, part of Energy Conversion Devices. Uni-Solar has been making glass-less solar panels, which they call laminates, for years. But unlike Global Solar, Uni-Solar uses amorphous silicon as the active ingredient for converting sunlight into energy. About 500 megawatts of flexible solar thin films have been made between 2005 and 2010, and roughly 80 percent of them have come from Uni-Solar, Finlay Colville, a senior analyst with Solarbuzz, told us.
But Uni-Solar’s laminates have low efficiencies – around 7 percent — which is a weak spot for company. In the most recent quarter ending March 31, Energy Conversion Devices posted a net loss of $384.8 million on $72.4 million in revenue. Earlier this month, the company said it would cut 140 jobs and move some of the manufacturing to Mexico to save costs. Back in June, the company announced plans to boost its panels’ efficiencies to a little over 8 percent by the end of this year and 10 percent by the end of 2011.
The BIPV market could boom as more roofing companies look for ways to incorporate solar into their products. After all, a growing number of solar energy systems are being mounted on residential and commercial rooftops. Those glass panels require racks to prop them up and anchor them to the roofs, and in some cases the mounting systems would need to bore holes in the roofs. Flexible modules like those from Global Solar and Uni-Solar do not need racking systems.
The roofing material companies “don’t want to see people cut into their roofs, so they want a product line that will generate power,” said Jean-Noel Poirier, vice president of marketing at Global Solar.
The light-weight design – because BIPV products don’t use glass or metal frames – will also be a selling point for building owners whose roofs can’t bear a lot of weight, Poirier said.
Global Solar plans to sell its flexible panels to not only roofing product companies but also solar installers, Poirier said. The company is targeting mostly flat commercial rooftops, the same space that Solyndra has been after with its panels of solar cell-lined tubes. Solyndra is selling the panels with a rack of its own design, and it claims the whole set up is wind resistant (the space between tubes let the wind through) and doesn’t require roof penetration.
Global Solar has sent product samples to customers, and expects to start commercial shipment in the first quarter of 2011, Britt said. The company has two factories with a combined 75 megawatts of solar cell/string production capacity annually. The company has the equipment for making the flexible panels at its Arizona factory and plans to add the equipment in its German factory by the end of the year.
As usual, many solar companies and market analysts see a great potential for the BIPV market (including MiaSole, another CIGS panel maker), but it hasn’t grown at the pace some have expected. Roofing companies have to price their shingles and membranes at attractive prices, and architects in general don’t wholeheartedly embrace new technologies because the new technologies aren’t proven and tend to jack up a project’s cost. The winners and losers of this market have yet to be defined.
Bear in mind that solar panels are supposed to last 25 years, with power generation warranties from manufacturers. So a number of giants in the materials world, such as Dow Corning and DuPont, have launched encapsulants over the past year that they say would provide a better armor than previous generation of materials.
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