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When the 2009 Solar Decath-lon ended last fall, Team Germany walked away with the overall prize. It was the team’s second victory in a row, as it also took top honors in 2007.

The Decathlon is a biennial Department of Energy program in which teams of college students compete to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house. That the German team won the crown again is no fluke: The country embraced the technology years ago, and now has one of the world’s most robust solar markets.

According to Solarbuzz, a San Francisco–based solar research and consulting company, world photovoltaic (PV) market installations reached 5.95 gigawatts (GW) in 2008. Spain contributed 2.46 GW of the total, while Germany’s part was 1.86 GW. The U.S stood at 0.36 GW.

“Europe accounted for 82 percent of world demand in 2008,” Solarbuzz says. “Spain’s 285 percent growth pushed Germany into second place in the market ranking, while the U.S. advanced to No. 3. Rapid growth in Korea allowed it to become the fourth largest market, closely followed by Italy and Japan.”

To U.S. consumers, solar energy is seen largely as an idea that sounds better in theory than it does in practice. For one thing, it’s expensive, costing up to $30,000 for a house, though less-expensive installations are possible. And, unless your state has good incentive programs, the homeowner pays most of the cost. As a result, solar does not have broad support or widespread market penetration outside of incentive-heavy California.

But things are changing. Electricity rates continue to rise, more states are increasing incentives for consumers, and the federal government has beefed up its tax credit for energy-efficiency upgrades such as solar. Now roofing manufacturers are introducing products that make it easier for builders to include solar in their houses.

Later this year, Valley Forge, Pa.–based CertainTeed is scheduled to begin shipping its solar-integrated roofing product EnerGen, a pre-engineered kit containing all the components necessary for installation. This is a significant development. As a major player in the roofing market, CertainTeed brings mainstream visibility to and widespread availability of solar.

“CertainTeed is transforming a niche technology into a product that is more accessible to the building industry and, therefore, a broader range of homeowners,” says Guillaume Texier, president of the company’s roofing division. “EnerGen is the first step in what will be a comprehensive portfolio of photovoltaic roofing products for residential and commercial applications.”

Another development is The Dow Chemical Co.’s announcement of the POWERHOUSE Solar Shingle. The Midland, Mich.–based company says the system integrates low-cost, thin-film PV cells into a proprietary roofing shingle that can be interwoven into standard asphalt roofing. It’s slated for limited availability by mid-2010 and wider availability in 2011.

Dow says POWERHOUSE is the latest milestone in its solar energy strategy following the formation of the Dow Solar Solutions business unit, which, in 2007, received $20 million in funding from the Energy Department to develop “building integrated” solar arrays for the residential and commercial markets.

Asphalt solar roofing isn’t the only game in town. Custom-Bilt Metals in Chino, Calif., offers FusionSolar, a thin-film solar laminate integrated with standing-seam metal roofing. The system comes with all necessary components, detailed schematics, and specifications for wiring and electrical components that an electrical subcontractor needs for installation.

An obvious benefit of seamless solar roofs is aesthetics. Picture an entire neighborhood of houses with conventional arrays, and then imagine the new sleeker alternative. Which would you prefer on your house, and better yet, on your neighbor’s house? “By providing a more aesthetically pleasing, unobtrusive roof plane with no roof penetrations, the product overcomes the largest objection to the acceptance of solar panels,” CertainTeed says.

But the larger implication for these products is the possibility of reduced solar prices, which is perhaps a bigger issue than aesthetics. Dow, for example, says its product reduces installation costs “because the conventional roofing shingles and solar generating shingles are installed simultaneously by roofing contractors.” Custom-Bilt Metals claims the same.

“By focusing on two core principles, simplicity and a lower cost of installation, we’re delivering a better solar power system,” says Tony Chiovare, president of Custom-Bilt Metals. “Additionally, we are providing builders, contractors, and their prospective customers with an ROI report to help them determine their payback period and to understand how much of their total power consumption they stand to offset by generating clean, renewable, and dependable solar power.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.