Solar panels can help reduce electricity bills and greenhouse gas emissions. It's too bad most of them are so ugly.
That may be changing. Later this year, Montreal-based ICP Solar Technologies will come out with a line of roof tiles with solar cells built in. By integrating the solar cells into the tiles, the system should prove more aesthetically pleasing than a billboard-like frame of solar panels sitting on top of the roof.
"We've already signed up a builder in Spain," said ICP Chief Executive Sass Peress.
Spain is one of the fastest-growing solar markets in the world, in part because of a recently enacted law that says new homes must incorporate some type of renewable-energy technology such as solar water heaters or solar electrical panels.
More than a year ago, solar-panel systems specialist PowerLight started selling integrated solar roof tiles to developers such as Grupe Homes, which has inserted the tiles in homes in some developments in California. The solar tiles add about $15,000 to the cost of a home, but cut power bills by about $1,300 a year and should add to resale values, according to developers. Real estate agents say the homes have sold fairly well. (PowerLight subsequently was acquired by solar panel maker SunPower.)
Originally, the solar roofing tiles were seen as a way to reduce the cost of installing solar power. Roughly half the cost of a solar system lies in installing the system on a roof. With the solar cells integrated into the roof tile, the installation costs decline because the system goes up at the same time as the roof. The aesthetic benefits were more of a bonus, SunPower CTO Dick Swanson has said.
Unlike PowerLight, ICP will not make its solar roof tiles out of rigid crystalline silicon, but of amorphous silicon. Amorphous silicon solar cells are cheaper to make, but historically have not been as reliable as crystalline panels. Companies, however, have improved the performance of amorphous panels, ICP's Peress said.
Amorphous silicon panels will also have to compete against silicon panels made from copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS. Both CIGS and amorphous silicon panels are printed in thin, flexible films.