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.
AN ELEGANT IDEA
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?"
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.
THE MARKET WARMS
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.
A rendering showing what the tiles would look like if installed on a traditional home.
"EASY AS COUNTERTOP"
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.
A prototype installation in Pennsylvania. The other tiles will be dyed to match.
ANYWHERE UNDER THE SUN
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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