Dow Chemical is moving full speed ahead to develop roof shingles embedded with photovoltaic cells. To facilitate the move, the U.S. Department of Energy has backed Dow’s efforts with a $17.8 million tax credit that will help the company launch an initial market test of the product later this year.
In October 2009, the chemical giant unveiled its product, which can be nailed to a roof like ordinary shingles by roofers without the help of specially trained solar installers or electricians. The solar shingles will cost 30 to 40 percent less than other solar-embedded building materials and 10 percent less than the combined costs of conventional roofing materials and rack-mounted solar panels, according to company officials.
Dow isn’t the first company to incorporate solar cells into building materials. In recent years, a number of leading solar manufacturers have launched small lines of solar shingles, tiles, and window glazes. But as Dow looks to bring its shingles mainstream, other solar manufacturers are backing away from the products. Suntech Power, the Chinese solar maker, and the largest crystalline silicon photovoltaic manufacturer in the world, has several integrated solar systems on the market, but with the recent downturn in new housing construction, the company has focused instead on ramping up conventional photovoltaic panel output, says Jeffrey Shubert, Suntech Power marketing director for North and South America.
According to analyst Johanna Schmidtke of Boston-based Lux Research, building integrated solar installations are, despite manufacturers’ claims, still significantly more expensive than conventional rack-mounted solar arrays due to increased costs associated with manufacturing and installation. The devices currently occupy niche markets for those willing to pay a premium for the aesthetic value of the less-obtrusive integrated systems.
Companies looking to develop solar shingles and other solar-integrated building materials have also had to overcome significant design and materials challenges. “Putting solar panels directly into the roof or skin of a building requires a product that has structural integrity, weathering ability, and electrical integrity,” says Mark Farber a senior consultant with Photon Consulting in Boston. “It has to be a good building material and a good power generator, and achieving both is hard to do.”