Structural glass skins feeding a building’s power supply may sound like science fiction, but the technology is emerging in Canada.
Building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) employ solar panels which in turn use semi-conductors to convert the power into electrical energy.
“These solid-state devices simply make electricity out of sunlight, silently with no maintenance, no pollution, and no depletion of materials,” writes Steven Strong of Solar Design Associates in the Whole Building Design Guide.
BIPV has found its way into a number of European buildings, but is still a relatively new building material in Canada.
In November, Toronto-based Eclipsall Energy Corporation announced it had installed a BIPV canopy and tower in a prototype Toronto-Dominion Bank in Mississauga. The company is also adding a BIPV canopy and sunshade to a TD Bank retrofit underway in Halifax.
Toronto major growth area
“I see the market growing immensely, especially in markets like Toronto,” says Sylvie Briz, director of new product innovation for Eclipsall. “Not only do we have a lot of new construction . . . most of our buildings are made with glass as a building skin.”
Briz says the local building community is very engaged in creating sustainable and LEED-quality buildings and that the City of Toronto is championing BIPV as a sector. “In our small market, there’s a huge opportunity,” Briz notes.
“But beyond that in Canada and America, for the same reasons as Toronto, I think there will be a lot of growth in the building-integrated PV market.”
Eclipsall’s next project is another TD Bank, with a goal of net zero energy consumption. The company plans to use a combination of BIPV applications in conjunction with a solar rooftop array.
Briz says the cost of BIPV seems high relative to typical solar panels due to the thickness of glass necessary to transform the technology from solar collector into an actual building material.
Energy savings one advantage
On its own, BIPV won’t enable a building to reach net zero, but it does result in energy savings. Additionally, owners or developers gain LEED points for using the material in a new structure.
Briz says it also comes with a tangible marketing benefit in that it’s very visible as a green feature, which can be used to educate tenants and clients.
In Canada, little competition exists in the BIPV market and working with the material can be complex. Briz describes it as the marriage of the solar and construction industries, neither of which knows each other particularly well.
“They’re very distinct and separate industries that haven’t had a need to converge and there’s a lot of learning on both sides,” Briz says.
The solar side is learning to deal with building codes, while the construction firms are learning about generating electricity within the building envelope and how to connect a building integrated application to the main electricity system.
Every jurisdiction has its own set of codes specific to its geography and challenges such as snow loads and wind loads. This means that in every building application, the glass thickness varies, requiring a structural engineer to determine what’s appropriate.
“Presents some challenges”
“It’s not a standard product by any means, which presents some challenges for us,” Briz says, “but nothing that can’t be overcome. It just means that there are more people involved in the design up-front.”
Eclipsall has five original investors and founders. The company was born out of Ontario’s Feed-in-Tariff program, designed to encourage and promote greater use of renewable energy sources.
Funded by a New York-based institutional investor, Eclipsall’s core business is the manufacture of standard solar modules. But the company has continued to add divisions, including an engineering procurement and construction division, and a project development and financing division.
The private firm has nearly 100 employees and a manufacturing facility of 165,000 square feet. The company has been primarily working in Ontario, with some export to the United States and small quantities to other parts of the world, such as Africa.