PV Pioneers

Early glass industry entrants in the solar installation market share their perspective
Katy Devlin
October 3, 2011
COMMERCIAL : SOLAR

Acralight International Skylights completed a BIPV canopy project at the Bay Area Rapid Transit System station, Union City, Calif. Onyx Solar supplied the BIPV system.

An increasing number of contract glaziers are getting involved in various aspects of the solar industry, from design and installation of BIPV and rooftop arrays, to product sourcing. "This is the future of where glazing is going," says Brendan Dillon, director of product marketing, Pythagoras Solar. "Solar has been developing over the last several years, and it seems like a very logical extension of the glass industry. ... A lot of people are putting their toes in the water."

Solar is a natural continuation of job responsibilities for glass installers, Dillon says. Building integrated photovoltaics—PV materials used in place of conventional products on the building envelope, such as in a skylight or curtain wall—requires the same skills and installation techniques as traditional glass products. "Glaziers need to provide BIPV as they would any other glass unit, and install it with the same trade labor using the same process," he says.

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New market hurdles

Three major factors have discouraged glass installers looking to get involved in solar, says Steve Coonen, BIPV consultant and principal, PV Glassworks, Grass Valley, Calif.: Glass companies are reluctant to work with electricity; they don't know where to get solar products; and projects with solar components have been few and far between. ... read more

Look before you leap: Advice for glass companies going solar

The solar market is calling. Are you going to answer? If so, learning about the products, project integration and installation techniques involved will be crucial to your success, say glass company personnel already working in the field. And don't forget the politics. ... read more

Standard pre-framed PV modules, such as those used on rooftop arrays, should also fall onto glaziers to install, says Steve Coonen, BIPV consultant and principal, PV Glassworks, Grass Valley, Calif. "PV panels are mostly glass, and they need to be handled properly, by a glazier," Coonen says. (For more about why glass companies should install solar panels, read "BIPV gaining traction; Are you ready?" on Page 44 of the August 2011 issue, and "Closer look: Who should install solar panels?" on Page 10 of the October 2010 issue.)

Despite the still-soft solar market (see sidebar, "New market hurdles"), some contract glaziers already have several solar projects under their belts. Trainor Glass Co., for example, has completed two projects, is nearing completion on a third, and has two more that are now underway, says Rick Hamlin, executive vice president, estimating and design. "On all projects, we provided materials and installed systems—two were thermal systems [harnessing solar energy forheat to use, for example, for water heating], two BIPV, and one roof-mounted," he says.

Glass and glazing companies report a sharp increase in interest among architects, and most expect more solar projects to come to fruition as architects and building owners become more familiar with the technology, and costs continue to go down. "Architects are detailing with more BIPV applications, and more of these applications are finding their way onto buildings," says Eddie Bugg, director, Sustainable Solutions, Kawneer/Alcoa Building & Construction Systems. "The general erosion of PV pricing in the marketplace is primarily driving these opportunities."

John Juba, CEO and owner of contract glazier Juba Aluminum Products, agrees that interest is rising. Juba Aluminum developed the subsidiary PV Energy Solutions about two years ago. "We're designing and developing BIPV systems and rooftop units, as well as solar in self-supporting structures, canopies and sunshades," he says.

"We've been in conversations with multiple architects over the last few years about incorporating PV panels into the wall systems, curtain wall and window systems," Juba says. "I've seen activity increase more in the last six months than in the last two and a half years. Looking at BIPV and large arrays, which means commercial or institutional, we're seeing more and more on the boards and being budgeted. If the next five years continue like the last six months, glass companies will start to see solar systems on projects."

Juba Aluminum/PV Energy Solutions completed a 10 kilowatt rooftop project and has about five projects in the planning stages. Gregg Haeberle, project manager at PV Energy Solutions, says, "I have two pre-construction projects on my desk right now. We've been starting to see a lot more come in—three or four in just the last month."

Officials from Acralight International Skylights also report growing interest in BIPV projects. "It has taken a few years for solar to really get introduced to the market, but these projects are starting to come to life. We're seeing more and more all the time, as people are becoming educated about BIPV," says Brendan Rogers, project manager. Acralight is working toward offering a complete turnkey solution for BIPV skylights and canopies; currently, the company offers BIPV systems and installation.

"We aren't yet certified in designing and installing the electrical portions, but we're working [towards] that," Rogers says. Rogers says the move to solar was a natural one for the company, which has been designing, fabricating and installing custom skylights for decades. "BIPV is becoming more common with skylights. If you're going to have a large skylight on the roof, you might as well have solar capabilities," he says. "The solar market kind of fell into our laps, and we've been working toward educating

installers and setting up courses so we can provide a full product from beginning to end." Acralight has completed about a half dozen BIPV projects since entering the solar market—all public projects, including the Orange Terrace Library, Riverside, Calif., and most recently ,the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, Union City, Calif. The BART project features more than 700 lineal feet of electricity generating skylights in two canopies, each about 330 feet long and 25 feet wide. "Originally, the architect had specified standard glass canopies, but they moved to BIPV panels," Rogers says.

That mentality will help drive BIPV integration, Dillon says. "If you're going to use a window or skylight anyway, why not make it BIPV?"

Glass companies are being proactive in promoting solar. Juba Aluminum/PV Energy Solutions, for example, has been educating architects and building owners about solar potential on projects. "In every job that we quote, we look at the architectural design of the system and offer, as an alternative application, some type of PV products within the building structure. We enhance what we're bidding," Juba says. Additionally, Haeberle says the company is working closely with municipalities to design solar structures for existing buildings. "We have written grants with them to help secure funding for these projects," he says.

Enclos Corp. is also taking steps to promote BIPV, reports Mic Patterson, director of strategic development. The contract glazier provides customized BIPV solutions. "BIPV's day will come, and Enclos is trying to bring this day forward by developing viable solutions of known cost and performance," he says. "We have had a research and development initiative in place for several years, experimenting with different PV products and their integration into our façade system."

Project opportunities

Looking on the solar horizon, glass companies report several areas of potential growth. One major opportunity for BIPV is in the retrofit market, says Paul Simony, vice president of sales and marketing, Acralight. "Increasingly, if an architect is looking to replace glazing in a skylight, they are considering replacing the glass with BIPV, so they can generate power as well," he says.

Simony sees ample opportunities in the BIPV canopy market. "We're seeing interest from the educational segment, from schools that are looking to incorporate PV to reduce energy costs. Out here in California, the schools have canopies over walkways leading to the outdoor classrooms—the canopies provide shade, and with BIPV, energy," he says. "We've also done mock-ups for companies designing electrical vehicle charging stations. These stations could be self-contained, with PV panels generating enough power to charge vehicles."

The homeowner market is also growing, Rogers says. "In the next few years, we're going to see a huge market for solar in the residential segment, particularly in the custom home market," he says. "We'll see homeowners integrating BIPV into the home itself, in addition to canopies in their driveways." 

Katy Devlin is senior editor for Glass Magazine. E-mail Katy at kdevlin@glass.org.