News Flash: The sun is hot. there's renewed and widespread attention being paid to it as a legitimate home energy source—and this time that interest might stick. A perfect storm of factors has come together to keep solar solutions on the front burner, including record crude oil prices, federal tax and local utility incentives, mainstream appreciation of global warming and green building, and smarter use of new technology that combines efficiency, low maintenance, easy installation, and aesthetics to achieve a faster return on investment for both builders and homeowners.
Forget those rural, off -the-grid homes of the 1970s and replace them with modern master planned communities in California and infill custom homes in Orlando, Fla. They are among the estimated 25,000 (and growing) homes that actively employ solar in some way. Toss aside bulky, metal-framed arrays in favor of sleek tiles or black panels that not only weave better into a roof form but also require a fraction of its square footage. Sprinkle in some passive heating and cooling solutions, daylighting options, and solar-powered path lights, and the sun's future in home energy looks bright.
Having quietly but effectively cut its teeth in the commercial sector, as well as making some stealthy moves among eco-minded consumers, the solar power industry—encompassing both solar thermal and photovoltaics (PV)—made itself ready for when rank-and-file housing finally came calling. And thanks to green building, new homes are better designed and built to optimize those systems and take advantage of passive solar benefits, as well—almost regardless of location or climate conditions.
Sure, there are some limitations, rules of thumb regarding optimum orientations and exposure, and caveats to effectively integrating solar. Chief among them is that its premium cost against retail utility rates still requires tax credits and rebates to boost its return on investment.
But solar today is quickly becoming a smart hedge against ever-rising electricity and natural gas bills. At some point in the near future—some say within the next decade—solar systems will run even with utility rates, without incentives. “We can already show savings on total aggregate housing costs over the length of a 30-year mortgage,” says Bob Reedy, director of the solar energy division of the Florida Solar Energy Council in Cocoa, Fla. “A solar hot water system might add to the loan amount, but the energy costs for that house will decrease and continue to do so,” he adds. Utility rates are expected to increase as they historically have, especially when grid power suppliers start applying variable rates for peak and non-peak use for homes, as they often already do for nonresidential buildings.
Consider what's coming together among the various solar solutions—and how builders can and are legitimately offering them to homeowners:
Aesthetics and Technology. Thanks to advances in solar technology, especially PV, you have to look a little closer to see a rooftop array these days. “We all remember the '70s and those battleships sticking out of the roof at odd angles,” Reedy says, recalling one major sticking point to solar's market acceptance in the past.
Today, a PV panel might look more like a skylight, a slightly darker section of an asphalt comp roof, or even more stealthily concealed within the channels of a standing-seam metal scheme, all the while collecting and converting more of the sun's light into electricity. “It's a fundamentally different technology and design,” compared with even recent semiconductor solar electric engineering, much less that of a generation ago, says Bill Kelly, general manager of the new-homes division of SunPower, a PV supplier in San Jose, Calif.
The company's sun tile and solar panel products, for instance, have all of the electrical wiring on the back of the unit, leaving a full face to the sun to draw as much sunlight as possible. The design allows SunPower to increase the thickness of the wires (and thus their capacity) without impacting the design or efficiency of the solar cells. A mirror on the inside of the back panel also reflects and captures sunlight that sneaks through the face.
That efficiency allows SunPower and its contemporaries to work toward delivering truly built-in products, including panels and tiles that fit into a conventional pitched roof finish in smaller or split configurations that ease aesthetic concerns while extending PV's effectiveness in a wider variety of geographic locations and climate conditions. “Solar is possible in virtually any climate,” says Dana Bres, a research engineer for HUD's Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) in Washington, debunking the common myth that solar only works in the desert.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Jose, CA.