Oct312016

Solar panels evolve with attractive architectural integration

The future home comes equipped with solar panels that charge home batteries and an electric car.

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My grandfather loved new technologies. He bought a handheld calculator in the early 1970s for over $50. Over the 30 years that followed, calculators became much more complex, and much, much less expensive.

The first calculators had no advantages over the mechanical adding machines of the time, but as prices fell and capabilities improved, the technology became widely adopted and the old adding machine technology largely disappeared. More recently this same phenomenon occurred with cell-phone cameras displacing snapshot cameras.

It isn’t only individual products that see advances and displacements. In oil production, the cost of oil fracking was so high that it was rarely used, but once oil prices rose high enough, the initial cost threshold was crossed, unleashing a torrent of research and development that drove costs down further, spawning a revolution in oil production.

oil-military-500x382As the chart above shows, solar power generation displays a similar pattern to oil fracking. The technology for generating solar power was initially an expensive novelty, and despite its promise as an alternative power source, rather than invest in developing this alternative, we chose to remain dependent on oil for another 30 years, spending trillions to secure oil supplies (and thousands of lives) rather than billions to develop alternatives.

Finally, innovators like Elon Musk, responding to government subsidies and incentives, solved the complex problems of solar panel design and production and drove the costs down to the point that solar power became financially feasible. Quite predictably, once this threshold was crossed, solar panel production — and solar power production — skyrocketed.

Taking advantage of the expansion of inexpensive solar panels, the State of California, eager to avoid a repeat of the rolling blackouts of the early 00s, and generally on the forefront of green energy initiatives, passed legislation requiring new homes built by 2020 to produce as much energy as they consume, resulting in a zero net energy consumption.

New California Building Efficiency Standards Set the Stage for Zero Net Energy Homes by 2020

June 10, 2015 Meg Waltner

The California Energy Commission voted unanimously today to approve updated building energy efficiency standards that the CEC says will cut regulated energy use in new homes by 28 percent and save consumers $31 a month compared to houses built under the current energy code. The new standards also set the stage for zero net energy new homes in the state within five years.

Known as “Title 24,” the standards will go into effect on January 1, 2017, and set minimum energy-saving requirements for new buildings and renovations that will reduce energy used for lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation, and water heating. …

California has set goals that all new residential buildings will be zero net energy (ZNE) by 2020 and new commercial buildings will be ZNE by 2030.

home-with-rooftop-solar-panelsOne of the main problems with early solar panels is that they were large, bulky, and unattractive. Solar panels generally need to face south (in the Northern Hemisphere) to point at the sun. If the south side of the house faced the street, many homeowners resisted installing these ugly panels on the front of their homes (and some HOAs wouldn’t allow it).

In response to the ugliness of early solar panel arrays, many HOAs in California sought to regulate or ban them entirely. The California State Legislature passed The California Solar Rights Act, found at Civil Code Sections 714 and 714.1, which provides certain protections for homeowners seeking to install solar panels on their properties. The Solar Rights Act prohibits HOAs from banning solar energy systems for aesthetic reasons — whether through an explicit ban or through onerous architectural restrictions that greatly reduce the performance of solar energy systems, or increase their costs.

As a result, even really high-end neighborhoods have atrocious solar panel arrays littering the landscape.

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Now that solar panel technology overcame the cost barrier, for solar panels to be more widely adopted, the industry needed to address the aesthetic issues. Again, Elon Musk is the problem solver at the forefront of this new revolution.

Elon Musk Reveals Solar Roof Made of Glass Tiles in L.A.

Dana Hull, October 28, 2016

  • Showcases ambitions to make Tesla a clean-energy giant
  • Solar roof that looks better than normal roof, Musk Says

Elon Musk showcased his ambitions to make Tesla Motors Inc. a clean-energy behemoth Friday, unveiling a new “solar-roof” product at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, California.

As the sun set, Musk told hundreds of guests … that Tesla and SolarCity Corp. … will make solar roofs that look better than normal roofs. He then showcased several houses with solar tiles gracefully embedded. Because the tiles are fully integrated into the roofs, many guests in attendance could not tell that they were solar.

How do we have a solar roof that is better than a normal roof, looks better, last longer,” said Musk. “You want to pull your neighbors over and say ‘Check out this sweet roof.”’

If you have time, watch this 15-minute presentation that covers all the details.

The solar roof will be offered in four styles: Textured Glass Tile, Slate Glass Tile, Tuscan Glass Tile, and Smooth Glass Tile — due to a variety of architectural choices. SolarCity’s website says production will begin in mid-2017 and that the tempered glass is as “tough as steel.”

“The solar roof consists of uniquely designed glass tiles that complement the aesthetics of any home, embedded with the highest efficiency photovoltaic cells,” said Tesla in a statement. “Customers can choose which sections of their roof will contain the hidden solar technology while still having the entire roof look the same.” …

The larger idea is that homeowners will generate electricity for their home with solar power, then store that electricity in a home battery known as a Powerwall. You can “fill up” your battery during the day, then discharge it at night when the sun sets.

Elon Musk’s vision is beautiful in its simplicity. Solar panels on the house power the house, charge the battery to power the house at night, and they charge the car that people use for daily transportation — all without need for the power grid or emitting any polluting gasses.

His cars are superior to existing vehicles that consume fossil fuels, so going green doesn’t mean driving around in an uncomfortable Prius. His new house battery holds more power and costs less than the first generation, and these costs will continue falling as this technology develops. And now, he’s found a way to overcome many of the remaining objections to rooftop solar.

As some point, people will begin to ask “why not” when thinking about the off-grid, zero-emission lifestyle. If people don’t have to sacrifice quality of life as a green badge of honor, far more people will embrace green technologies, and the planet will be a better place.

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