Sole Power Tile Makes Adding Solar Easy

Designers Accord

Ask around to homeowners who have looked into capturing solar energy on their roof, and they will likely tell you there are several problems with the standard solar panel. The cost to install can be prohibitive, making it far from a smart investment for many houses. The solar panels are bulky and heavy—it's basically a glass box suspended six inches above your roof. Plus most solar panels are made from materials like glass, silicon wafers and aluminum that are not always sustainable to produce or easy to recycle. And, to be honest—because this is your home we're talking about, and you do care—they're just so darn ugly.

Peter Bressler, principal of Bresslergroup—the Philadelphia-based design firm that has executed over 1500 product design projects for clients as diverse as Black and Decker, Motorola, Becton Dickinson and Honeywell—had lived through the gas crisis in the late '70s (and near enough to Three Mile Island) to become personally concerned about energy in the mid-1990's. "Environmental issues were really entering the public consciousness," he remembers. "The need for alternative energy generation options was clear." One day Bressler was coming home from a business trip, flying low over miles and miles of rooftops. "I thought, why are all of these roofs not generating electricity?"

Sole Power Tile
A concept illustration showing the Solé idea compared to traditional panels.

Bressler came up with an idea to take the massive solar panel and condense it into a modular system that could actually be used more like a design element: Integrated into the building, rather than an afterthought. The tile would mimic the shape of the traditional curved "barrel tile" made from terra-cotta, which is already found on most Spanish-influenced roofs in regions where solar power would be most efficient. It was a game-changing idea. But neither the technology to make it affordable nor the market demand existed to make it a viable product and the concept sat idle for several years.

Fast forward to 2005, when a "perfect storm" of new photovoltaic materials and rising public awareness allowed funds to be raised and Bresslergroup was hired by SRS Energy as the designers of the first curved building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) roofing product, Solé Power Tile. Instead of the rigid silicon crystalline wafers, Bresslergroup created a polymeric material that allowed them to make the curve of the tile. For the panels themselves, they used an extremely flexible triple-junction non-crystalline amorphous silicon cells made by Michigan-based UNI-SOLAR, known as a "thin film" technology.

"They're the first company to make a cost-effective, lightweight solar technology that's ideal for the roofing space," says Abby Nessa Feinstein, director of marketing for SRS Energy. "The amount of energy and light that it can absorb from the sun is competitive with the traditional solar panels we see in the market, and in cloudy conditions and high-heat, it can actually do better." Not only are the Solé tiles far cheaper to produce, the solar technology employed uses 99% less material than a traditional silicon wafer. And the curve in the tile allows air to freely circulate below it, preventing overheating. The ability to easily disassemble the thin film at the end of its lifespan make for easy recycling.

Sole Power Tile
A rendering showing what the tiles would look like if installed on a traditional home.

The 32.25-inch by 18-inch navy tiles can either be installed on an entire roof, or on a part of an existing tile roof, with the remaining clay tiles stained to match the blue color. To further reduce labor costs, the tile system can easily be installed by roofers—it doesn't need a special solar-specializing team of contractors—and can replace an existing roof at the moment when a homeowner is going to need to upgrade anyway. SRS CEO Marty Low thinks this makes the decision as easy as choosing Corian or marble for a kitchen countertop. "Solar in the past has been a monumental decision to be made," says Low. "You've already installed your roof, and solar is still expensive, even with all the incentives. But if you change it to the time period when you're actually buying a roof, then it becomes an upgrade. We want to be in the mindset of the consumer who is going from an environmental clay roof to a more environmental roof that produces solar."

Solé tiles are actually lighter than the clay tiles, saving cost and impact during shipping, and the cost-savings for the homeowner are also pretty dramatic: For the average residential system generating 7500 kilowatt hours a year, a $21,000 investment has a 10.2% rate of return (and remember, that's the actual roof paying itself off in about 10 years). Tax credits also alleviate the financial burden, and a solar roof would also result in a $35,000 increase in home value. And a web-based interface easily tells consumers how much energy they're producing. "It can be your new thing to brag about at dinner parties," laughs Feinstein.

Sole Power Tile
A prototype installation in Pennsylvania. The other tiles will be dyed to match.

Bresslergroup believed so strongly in the importance of this project that it established an arm of its company to develop the product in cooperation with SRS Energy. Now, having those proprietary ownership of manufacturing channels allows the Solé tiles to be built-to-order and can go from raw materials to roof in less than 30 days. Through another partnership, with US Tile, the largest clay-tile manufacturer in the country, Solé Power Tile will be distributed as an upgrade to their tile systems this year. The first building to receive a full installation was completed in June in Pennsylvania (above). Next, US Tile and SRS will install the tiles on more homes throughout California, including Palm Desert, Corona and Manhattan Beach. An ideal partnership would be to work with a large-scale home producer like KB Homes to offer it as an option during new home construction.

The process affected Bresslergroup so deeply they started a sustainability forum, Bresslergreen, and was one of the first ten firms to ratify the Designers Accord. But their biggest vote of approval came while Solé was exhibiting at the American Institute of Architects annual convention in late April. "Surprisingly we thought there was going to be a lot of push-back on the color, because people are so used to terra-cotta," says Feinstein. "But people really thought it was an elegant tile. The architects were all over it, talking about all the things they could do with it."

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  • Linda

    I really like that they are trying to make solar power panels more attractive. It's a great idea. It sounds like they have a little bit further to go until this science is perfected. There's a roofing company here in Ohio called "Roofing Cleveland" that is doing something similar for farmers and their barns. It's pretty intriguing.

  • ECD Fan

    To Louann Oravec: These tiles are made from polypropylene, a thermoplastic olefin material. In freezing temperatures, the material becomes naturally brittle, however there are certain additives (fillers) that can improve its properties. Thus far, based on the information provided on SRS Energy's web site, it is unclear what precise composition will be used for the tiles. Polypropylene formulations are being used in many modern car bumpers or in rooftop membranes, so it is possible to make them withstand cold, but the question is, does SRS Energy care?

  • ECD Fan

    jb: I have provided sufficient references in my blog post so that anyone can go and check the facts. And spotting a fake, digitally altered, picture is not that hard. Going to the CEO's ice parlor's web site is not hard either. And what environmental friendliness are you talking about? Don't you realize that these atrocious blue "solar" tiles will be made of plastic (polypropylene), i.e., oil? Is this your idea of environmental friendliness? You must be the perfect target of SRS Energy's deceptive marketing.

  • j b

    ECD Fan-
    Pointing to a blog with a blatant disclaimer that it does not claim accuracy in any way and is not liable for any of the information it contains is in no way a valid counter argument to the statements made in this article. Instead you could be applauding ANY movement towards environmental friendliness.

  • ECD Fan

    Jenn Crane: Simple idea, yes. But it makes no economic or architectural sense. That is why SRS Energy has to resort to the blatant marketing fraud they are engaged in right now.

  • Jenn Crane

    It’s a nice and simple idea. Would be great to see new housing developments utilize the roof space effectively. Flying a good deal definitely makes you aware of all of the surface area out there. It would be great if there was a flat, non curved version as well. Not as sexy as the curved but a lot more common in the north east where I live. Would also be nice to to actually see energy credits rolling in from my local utility.

  • ECD Fan

    Mr. Abby Nessa Feinstein is lying to you outright. For example, her statement that the "amount of energy and light that it can absorb from the sun is competitive with the traditional solar panels we see in the market, and in cloudy conditions and high-heat, it can actually do better" is a total fabrication, as the efficiency of the tiles will be just 5.5% vs over 14% for traditional crystalline modules. Moreover, because the tiles are curved, they will generate less electricity than flat glass panels, even if the efficiencies were the same (and they aren't)!

    She is also lying when saying that the tiles are "far cheaper to produce." Just the opposite! They have disclosed plans to sell the tiles for $8 per Watt (now probably lowered to $6-$6.50 per watt). That is twice the current price of Chinese-made crystalline modules with acceptable quality (and 3x what First Solar's thin film module sell for). The solar laminates used in the tiles themselves sell for close to $3 per Watt ex-works, in volume.

    Oh, and that pretty picture of the house with the blue roof is fake and a total fabrication. That house actually sports a perfectly fine roof with red ceramic tiles. The blue was done in some image-editing software. Also, the first building to receive a full installation (on the second picture) is actually the CEO's ice parlor. The CEO destroyed the roof of that parlor (which had perfectly nice grey shingles) just to make it a showcase for his tile - the perfect lure for uninformed consumer and article-writers.

    Read all about the blatant marketing fraud perpetrated by SRS Energy here:

    Fastcompany should be ashamed for allowing an outfit like SRS Energy to plant a story like this one, and should definitely reconsider your editorial policy if you want to preserve your reputation.