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Markets: „Bedfellows“ for solar energy

Facade in ThyssenKrupp's new rolling mill. Photo: ThyssenKrupp AG(December 2009) The new competition is unbeatable: solar cells are about to conquer facades, hands down.

Here is just one statistical figure: The International Energy Agency (IEA) published its „World Energy Outlook“ in October of this year and concludes that the cost of energy will increase substantially within the next 20 years: For the USA, Europe and India this means that the percentage of GNP ear-marked for gas and oil imports will double by 2030 – for China predictions are a tripling and for Japan a 50% increase of cost-proportion, according to the IEA report.

What’s more: even if the Climate Conference scheduled to be held in Copenhagen from 7 to 18 December of this year, should yield no concrete carbon dioxide limits, it can be conservatively predicted that an increasing number of companies will clad their office buildings in solar cells. This will be to lower costs and to demonstrate their ecological awareness.

Up until now, natural stone siding for office complexes was one important market for the stone industry.

Technically, large surface vertical solar cells have matured and reached a viable degree of technical sophistication. To name but one case in point: the CIS Tower of a Manchester Insurance Company was clad entirely in solar cells by Sharp. The mosaic manufacturers, which had hitherto supplied the siding, have lost a market covering many a square meter of building surface.

Anyone arguing that only the south side of a building is suitable for solar energy collection hasn’t done his homework: even the north face of a building renders profitable solar energy with the help of modern technology. Siding is now not only available in the well-known blue and grey tones but also in yellow, purple and green. More colours are being developed.

And finally: even transparent solar cells are now standard. From the interior there is practically no optical interference. From the outside these cells look like a reflective coating. They can often be found on railway station roofs, e.g.: Stillwell Ave. station of the New York Underground.

Does that mean that the stone branch is losing an important portion of the market for construction siding? Not at all! But it will have to face the competition before it is too late. Beat ‚em or join ‚em! Or: move over, we’re moving in!

Impressive examples have been demonstrated more as a playful experiment rather than as a goal-oriented market strategy. Tin is, e.g., a well-known siding material. Duisburg-based ThyssenKrupp developed a siding, which integrates solar cells in the classic tin siding. It not only looks very avant-garde but it also demonstrates what can be achieved when combining the two materials, and using solar siding lends a aura of ecological awareness to the company’s image. Looking at the press photos: the green grass finds its equal in the green siding and the blue sky in the blue waves of the solar cells. The ultimate ecological awareness.

The buzz-word is „Integrated Solar Cells“: a combination of solar modules and other materials.

The glass industry has also been tinkering with the idea. Based in the German city of Mainz, Schott AG, one of the world’s leading glass manufacturers, combined stained glass with solar cells in its head-office stairwell. The result is a modern, lively design reflecting the pure joy of design experiments, so popular today.

In another example, wood and solar cells were combined, albeit not on the branch’s initiative. This was a private project in the German town of Tübingen. The owners wanted to implement ecologically friendly building materials and therefore chose wood as a „bedfellow“ for the solar cells. The cells are produced by the Sunways AG, which proudly presents this award-winning project in its ads.

These examples demonstrate that, even though it is possible to clad every inch of a facade in solar cells, this is not always desired by the contractors. Probably the wish to bring the energy standards of a building up to date goes hand-in-hand with an attempt to give it a new look as well.

This is where the stone industry comes in. Solar cells literally shout out for fitting bedfellows to clad buildings in tandem.

The initiative for novel design ideas must come from the retailers and wholesalers. Difficult to see why the facades of their warehouses have not yet been clad in novel stone design ideas.

Local stone producers also have a responsibility and unique opportunity to hold their own vis-à-vis low discount competitors from abroad. Stone and solar energy „bedfellows“ are only truly ecologically friendly if they do not need to be transported halfway around the world before finding their final place of rest – so to speak. Put another way, by means of the architectural project stone manufacturers could imply that solar cells can only peacefully cohabit with local stone.

This was the year of another solar decathlon. The point of this international student competition hosted by the US Department of Energy is to design, build and operate the most attractive, effective and energy efficient solar-powered house. Points are attributed in ten different disciplines – thus the name „Decathlon“ – among them energy efficiency, architecture and comfort. The projects were presented this summer on the Washington Mall within a stone’s-throw of the White House and can be seen on-line in short film clips.

Remarkable that wood was used in all projects, also steel and aluminium. Stone was only implemented by the Alberta team, and that only peripherally.