Enwave Theatre

Integrated solar cells offer design-savvy solution

Building integrated photovoltaics offer a more flexible option than traditional solar panels
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
By Leah Wong

As municipalities across Canada start requiring higher and higher building energy standards, architects and developers are starting to get creative when looking for ways to drive efficiencies.

Consequently, forward-thinking developers have started looking at building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) solar cells as part of their overall efficiency plan.

While the old style of solar panels are added onto a building, BIPVs are integrated into building materials, becoming another material for architects to choose from. Because they serve multiple purposes — both as a power generator and as a building material — they reduce the quantity of materials needed for a building. 

These cells allow for flexibility, and can be installed on the building’s facade, its roof (either pitched or flat) or integrated into a skylight. And while the practice of integrating photovoltaics into the building envelope is popular in Europe, it is still in its infancy in Canada.

Speaking at the National Green Building Conference in Toronto, Miljana Horvat, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science, said that some builders currently avoid solar due to perceived aesthetic concerns. When considering solar panels, many imagine the older, larger and more obtrusive models.

BIPVs on the other hand can not only be disguised when integrated into a building envelope, they can be made into works of art.

Artist Sarah Hall designs glass installations for building facades that incorporate BIPVs. With the solar technology embedded into coloured glass, she can make solar the skin of the building and connect the project to the grid.

One of Hall’s recent projects was installed into the facade of the Enwave Theatre at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. The work was part of a larger retrofit to increase the overall energy efficiency of the building.

From a distance, the glass panels of the Waterglass installation look like a wall of blue waves. But the embedded BIPV solar cells in the western canopy of the glass has the dual purpose of generating electricity during the daylight hours.

These types of projects can be more practical in some areas of Canada than certain regions in Europe, where they are more popular. Horvat told attendees that Toronto actually receives 35 per cent more solar radiation per unit of surface area than Berlin.

However, Horvat says that local resistance still remains due to the industry’s insufficient knowledge about integrating photovoltaics, and it is often related to the assumed cost of using the material.

But Rob McMonagle, senior advisor with the City of Toronto’s Economic Development and Culture division, told conference attendees that BIPVs do not cost substantially more than other facade materials. Though the infrastructure does initially come with a higher price tag, it provides building owners better value over time.

As BIPV can be used as a replacement for conventional building materials, and is an architectural cost. The generated electricity — and resulting savings— can be viewed as a bonus.  

Solar companies are continuing to add new BIPV products into the Canadian marketplace. And as new products hit the market, they are being incorporated into new developments. For example, Eclipsall Energy Corporation added a BIPV canopy and BIPV tower to a TD Bank in Mississauga this past November.  

These factors mean that BIPVs could be used more regularly to meet ever-rising building standards. For example, Toronto’s new Green Standard, which applies to development applications submitted from Jan. 1, 2014 onward, requires new mid-rise and high-rise buildings to have 15 per cent higher energy efficiency than what is required under the current Ontario Building Code.

McMonagle also noted there is also a growing need for alternative energy sources in Toronto. The current power system is unreliable, which is driving the need for alternative solutions including BIPVs.

Leah Wong is the online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management magazines.

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