An increasing number of companies are turning to solar power – no matter their business. Global installations of solar photovoltaics (PVs) are expected to reach 64.7 GW (Gigawatt) in 2016, compared to 57.8 GW in 2015.1 Aside from the obvious benefit of promoting a company asenvironmentally-friendly, using a solar panel system is the equivalent to prepaying for nearly 40 years of energy at a fraction of the cost a company would otherwisepay for electricity.2
As this green solution grows, and as manufacturers are paving the path for the next generation of solar panels, contractors assigned with the task of installing this energy-efficient innovation should be aware of both the emerging technologies and the associated risks. Solar panel manufacturers and contractors alike have a responsibility to safely create and install this trending technology.
What is Next for Solar Panels?
Advances in solar panel technology have recently been making headlines. A plethora of companies are bringing new technologies to market. Bi-facial solar panels, which sandwich the PVs between panes of glass, and allow light to filter through either side, are trending in popularity. Brooklyn-based company, Pvilion, designs tent-like structures and other flexible textiles that can harness solar power.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, made a reference in a July blog post to plans for “stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage.”3 Sistine Solar’s “Solarskin” panels, expected to debut in 2017, will incorporate PV cells into tiles and shingles made to match the design of an existing roof. There is a lot of industry buzz around the perovskite cell, a type of PV cell, which contains materials that are cheap to produce and simple to manufacture.
Most of the solar cells presently in commercial use are made of silicon, which, on average, only achieve 16 to 20 percent efficiency when converting solar energy.4 Perovskite cells could be used more efficiently; however, perovskite cells are not as physically stable as silicon cells. When exposed to humid air, these cells can degrade in a matter of days.5 As companies work to perfect these technologies, the industry will continue to evolve. Some of these technologies are likely to fizzle, but others may revolutionize the industry.
As solar panel technology becomes more sophisticated, it also becomes more problematic in terms of durability. Knowing the risks of new technologies will enable your company to offer better, safer services.
The Emerging Risks
From building codes to fire hazards, the risks associated with solar panels cannot be overlooked. The demand for environmentally friendly elements, especially solar panels, is expanding, and architects are increasingly tasked with retrofitting buildings with solar infrastructure.
Roofs are traditionally built to last 20-40 years. As roofs get more crowded with mechanical equipment, additional work or leisure space, and green roofs and gardens, many roofs built decades ago may need to be replaced early in the lifespan of a solar system installed atop the roof. It is crucial to know a roof’s remaining lifespan before making an investment in a rooftop PV system.
When installed properly, PV solar systems do not cause fires. However, due to improper installation, faulty wiring or insufficient insulation, fires have been attributed to solar panels.6 PV installations should be installed in strict accordance with national guidance (many ICC codes have sections relevant to PV installations7) and any specific guidance issued by the solar panel manufacturer.
Solar panels also pose electrical shock risks. A New Jersey warehouse burned for 29 hours because firefighters feared electrocution when coming into contact with the building’s rooftop 7,000-panel PV system. In sunlight, solar panels can generate anywhere from 60 to 120 V of electricity. Furthermore, in contrast to the power used by conventional electrical equipment, the power that PV systems generate is DC (direct current); parts of the systems cannot be switched off. Clear communication – signage at the front of the building or diagrams showing where the system can be shut off – can help fire crews determine their emergency response plan as quickly as possible.
Several companies are working toward the quintessential solar panel – one that is both effective and appealing in design. But do not just wait for these ideas to become realities; start preparing today. Educate yourself on the risks by talking with your risk control consultant. Talk to your customers about evaluating the integrity of their roofs now to be able to accommodate solar panels in the future. Positioning your construction business as a well-informed industry leader will not only help your reputation, but also help you manage your and your customers’ risks.