Solar Shingles: An Alternative to Solar Panels
For the past decade, the popularity of solar energy has been growing rapidly worldwide. Most people have seen solar panels being installed on houses and businesses in their community, usually in the form of large silver rectangular panels spread out across a roof or other free-standing structures, such as a parking cover, or even a car
When it comes to choice, vanity almost always yields to functionality. A few companies such as SunPower have created all black solar panels that blend in a bit more than other models, but this doesn’t change the clunky look of the panels themselves. Fortunately, recent breakthroughs in thin-film design have lead to the more integrated approach offered by solar “shingles”.
Solar shingles, or photovoltaic shingles, were first released in 2005. Similar to solar panels, solar shingles capture sunlight and transform it into usable energy. Solar shingles are typically smaller, though — 12″ wide and 86″ long — and can be stapled directly to roofing cloth, just like normal shingles. Once installed, they give the roof a purplish blue tint, but otherwise they look much like regular tar and sand shingles.
Electricity is generated through solar shingles when the sun strikes a semiconductor layer, typically made from crystalline silicon and laminated to the shingle’s surface. According to an article on Thisoldhouse.com, a single solar shingle produces about 50-200 watts of energy, enough to power a wall fan. Not bad for one tiny shingle; imagine what you could do with a whole roof-load?
One of the big challenges in using traditional solar panels is determining how many to install. They don’t usually come in small sizes, so many customers end up buying more or less than they need. With smaller solar shingles, it’s easier to get just the amount you want.
According to another article on Hubpages.com, solar shingles can create energy for the average household for up to 40 years! Given that most people replace traditional shingles at least once every 15-20 years, this means solar shingles could cut down on maintenance costs in addition to generating more sustainable energy.
Of course, the biggest payoff with any solar technology is the savings in transporting energy to its end-use location. With traditional coal or nuclear energy, valuable power is used just to transfer it along city lines and to the countryside. Micro-power or localized solar solves this, and reduces overall waste.
As with solar panels, energy generated from solar shingles is stored locally in a battery, or passed through to the grid using net metering. Net metering is a system designed to let businesses and home owners use energy from traditional sources when they need it, and share extra power when they are producing it themselves, effectively “netting out” their energy use. Energy shared with the grid is passed on to the community; the more power-producing structures in a community, the more stable and efficient the community’s power becomes.
Wikipedia states: “Backup storage, in the form of batteries, is expensive, adds complexity to the installation, and is uneconomic in any large scale.” While it’s true that battery units require an array of additional hardware (batteries, battery enclosures, battery charge controllers, and separate sub panels for critical load circuits) they are useful as a backup system or even for primary use, particularly if you live far from an established grid or don’t have access to net metering. In some situations, an electric car can act as a giant battery, and future smart grids may even draw on parked cars for power during peak loads and to reduce the need for expanded coal capacity.
Are solar shingles expensive? Well, compared to traditional solar panels, the answer is no. One author on Hubpages.com claims that you will not only be reducing your monthly energy bill, but increasing the overall value of your house by as much as 4%. With the prices of energy and building materials in constant flux, locking in your rates by tethering to solar energy might be a wise decision and could increase your property value. In addition, when your neighbors experience brown-outs or complete power outages, your home will be fine.
Hubpages.com also claims that installing solar shingles “gives you back a price premium of about 10%, which is an increased value of your property, after making it energy efficient and renewable.” So, depending on your situation as a home owner, this return could represent a 6% increase in value from day one with ongoing benefits, minus the cost of interest if you take out a loan.
Older solar shingle models were more expensive because they represented a new technology — recent models made with thin-film copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) are far more affordable and can be installed in as little as 10 hours, instead of 22-30 hours for large solar panels. They are also lighter in weight, making them ideal for older structures or buildings already under stress.
Companies that currently manufacture solar shingles include SunPower Corporation, Solar Components Corporation, Atlantis Energy Systems, and Dow Chemical. In addition, large home builders in California are partnering with companies like SunPower to offer homes that have pre-installed solar systems. This is a wonderful option, because the costs of rewiring and reinforcing a roof for solar can take up as much as 50% of the overall costs to go solar, and regularly becomes a deciding factor for families who are considering renewable energy down the road. Even without pre-installed panels or shingles, homes that are “solar ready” are worth more in the long term and for resale purposes.
Is solar power “the fuel of the future”? Elon Musk thinks so.
The co-inventor of PayPal, now turned alternative energy rock star, has built two companies — solar power utility SolarCity (SCTY) and electric car company Tesla (TSLA) — around the idea that solar-generated electricity is the way to power our cars and save our environment. He’s also working on a third company — SpaceX — which aims to bring mankind a bit closer to that ultimate clean-energy source, the sun.
But is solar power truly the solution to our energy needs? Not necessarily.
‘Free’ Power Can Be Awfully Expensive
Last month, alternative energy analyst Gordon Johnson at Axiom Capital crunched the latest numbers out of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and published a report on his findings.
The upshot: When it comes to “alternative” ways to generate electricity, solar energy is just about the most expensive form of energy you can get.
Calculating the cost of generating a kilowatt hour of electricity by tallying the cost of building a facility, operating it, and paying for the fuel it consumes — then amortizing all this across all the electricity it’s expected to produce in its lifetime — Johnson points out that solar photovoltaic power costs about 22 cents a kwh. Solar thermal power, where sunbeams are reflected and concentrated on a heat-retaining medium such as salt or graphite to store heat for later use in generating electricity, costs even more — about 32 cents a kwh.
What forms of energy are cheaper than these? Pretty much any that you might think of.