In her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate, journalist Simran Sethi explores the idea of setting our tastes based on what is ethical. She gives the example of wild-grown coffee, which is gentlest on the environment but, when brewed, doesn’t match our typical idea of what good coffee tastes like. (It tastes “earthy,” or in other words, kind of like dirt.) But tastes are subjective, and they change throughout our lifetime. So, what if we made the conscious effort to shape them based on the changes we want to see in the world?
Sethi may have been writing about coffee, but this same philosophy can be applied to any area where big changes are waiting to happen — including energy.
When you think of solar panels, you may not think of design. Traditional panels — those massive rectangles, black or blue and reflective, arranged front-and-center across your roof — can look severe or, even worse, like an afterthought, unrelated to the style of the rest of your house. But, like wild coffee, solar energy is good for the planet. And, unlike the artisanal beans at your local hipster cafe, it can be great for your budget too.
Given these benefits, it’s worth thinking about solar energy and our subjective taste. Can we just learn to love the traditional panel? Or, will our demand for aesthetics, coupled with our growing interest in solar energy, drive researchers to find new alternatives to the bulky rectangle?
In Bread, Wine, Chocolate, Sethi’s proposition is that we vote, with our money and our behavior, for better options. Architect Walter Sedovic of the firm WSA Modern Ruins argues that we can do just the same with solar energy. “The thing that’s most important is for people to keep an open mind to look for opportunities to engage and embrace these technologies,” he told me over the phone, “because the more we use them, the more they evolve, and the more they evolve, the more we use them.” In other words, the more beautiful we find renewable energy, the more beautiful it becomes.
The best solar panels for your home are the ones you’re proud to show off.
“Some people, especially in a progressive town like Austin, want to have the bragging rights of ‘going green’ in the neighborhood,” says Andie Marsh, a home performance consultant at TreeHouse, a sustainability-focused home improvement company in Texas. “They want the panels to be visible but still clean and concise — which means no mosaic designs.”
If you Google “ugly solar panels,” you’ll find examples of block and mosaic arrays. The first, like Marsh says, are clean and concise, arranged in a tidy shape across all or part of the roof. The second can look patchy and random, two words that have probably never been part of any compliment. Mosaic installations happen when your roof has obstacles, like skylights, chimneys, or multiple levels, but an installer should be able to work with you to make your array look as neat and streamlined as possible.
If that’s enough for you to go solar, great news! Panels are still much more widely available than any of the newer solar alternatives, so if you choose them, it will be that much easier for you to research, not to mention find installers and manufacturers. As you shop around, you’ll want to get quotes and compare offers, and you’ll have many more options with panels than you would with more exclusive or emerging technology.
A full solar array, including panels and all supporting parts, can cost between $10,000 and $40,000, although the solar investment tax credit will save you 30 percent through 2019. If you aren’t ready to spend that much at once or take out a loan, you can still go solar without buying your panels. Many solar providers now offer leasing options, and companies like SolarCity and Vivint have come out with power-purchase agreements, or PPAs. Both of these choices let you go green without spending thousands of dollars up front. (Just keep in mind that with a lease or PPA, you won’t save quite as much money over time, and your solar provider, not you, will get to take advantage of any tax credits.)
There are a few ways to customize your solar panel look. Panels come in two colors: black and blue. The black ones are called monocrystalline panels, which means they’re made from single crystals of silicon. The blue ones are polycrystalline panels, which are made from many silicon crystals melted down, then poured into a cast. Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient solar choice, but that doesn’t mean they’re your only choice. It just means that you need more polycrystalline panels to generate the same amount of power you could get with fewer monocrystalline panels. So if you prefer the blue look, you’ll need a little more space on your roof to make way for those extra panels.
Depending on the slant of your roof, you might also be able to decide whether to mount your panels at an angle on a “tilt frame” or have them installed flush against your shingles. Tilt frames act like kickstands, lifting panels so they can point toward the sun at a different angle than your roof. Getting the right angle will help you catch the most energy from the sun, and this kind of installation will make your panels stand out even more.
Ready for panels? Start with an installer.
Once you’re ready to buy your panels and turn your roof into the shiny power generator of your dreams, you can start by choosing a local solar installer. Customer service and accessibility are key, but also keep an eye out for solid warranties (you should be able to find ones that cover up to 25 years) and guaranteed credit (money back if your panels are not as efficient as your installer promises).
Don’t hesitate to ask potential installers for references from clients as well, and consider checking with a consumer review site like Angie’s List to make sure real people can vouch for the company you choose.
A good installer should have panels available from top-of the-line manufacturers. According to Reviews.com, a great solar panel should have:
- A solid history: Since solar panels are a long-term investment and come with long-lasting warranties, you’ll want to be sure your manufacturer won’t fold before it can fulfill your warranty. A solid 10-year track record of business is where you should start.
- At least 230 watts of power: If your panels aren’t powerful, you’ll need that many more of them to generate the energy you need, which means you’ll need more roof surface area and you’ll probably end up spending more money too.
- An efficiency rating of at least 16.5 percent: For a solar panel, efficiency is determined by a panel’s power relative to its size. For the reasons above, small and mighty is the way to go.
- Excellent customer service: If all goes well and the installer you choose doesn’t go out of business during the lifetime of your warranty, you’ll never have to talk to your solar panel manufacturer at all. But just in case you do need to work with the company, it’d better be friendly, helpful, and accessible.
Rooftop solar isn’t the only way!
Panels don’t even necessarily need to be on top of your house anymore. The 28th Street Apartments in South Los Angeles are an example of panels being installed vertically, on the sunny south side of the building. “Part of this affordable housing project is an historic 1926 YMCA originally designed by Paul Williams, the first African-American to be certified as an architect west of the Mississippi,” writes Alissa Walker for Gizmodo. “The building is a gem, both aesthetically and culturally, and it was incredibly important to keep Williams’ vision as intact as possible.” The vertical array mirrors the mesh structure on the side of the building, as if solar energy were part of Williams’ vision in the first place.
If you don’t want panels on your house at all and have enough yard space, you may be able to opt for ground-mounted panels. Because this kind of array won’t require you to make holes in your roof, it’s also a great, low-risk place to explore DIY options. These kits range from small arrays to larger ones that could generate all the electricity you need, depending on where you live and how much energy you use. One of the leading manufacturers of DIY solar kits is Grape Solar, whose products you can pick up at big chains like Home Depot or Costco.
The main drawback to DIY options is that you won’t have the help of an installer to figure out local codes and incentives. Mother Earth News lays out the steps for DIY solar well, and warns that putting together your solar kit will take more work than assembling an IKEA table. “You’ll soon become familiar with the websites of the companies that manufacture the parts — especially the ‘download manuals’ area,” writes the author. But this extra work will be worth it for some people: kits run about $5,000 to $20,000 and are eligible for the solar investment tax credit, making them much more affordable than panel arrays you don’t have to put together yourself.
Whether you want to shout your green warrior status literally from your rooftops or get your solar benefits from a secret corner of your yard, silicon panels will be the easiest to find, purchase, and install. But they are hardly the last word in solar energy.
Not into panels? Integrate solar into your home — starting with the shingle.
Since shingles and solar panels can already coexist on roofs, consider combining them into one thing that serves both functions: keeping the elements out of your house and bringing the sun’s energy in.
The solar shingle is already here. It’s not yet as widely available, or as efficient, as the solar panel, but it represents just the beginning of a new, growing trend of building-integrated photovoltaics, or BIPV for short. Like its name implies, BIPV is installed as the rest of your house is being built, so it’s really only an option if you’re ready to replace your roof, or if you’re working on designing a custom home.
When Chris and Diane Murphy began planning their house in Greenwich, Connecticut, a few years ago, they decided that “it was going to be green, and it was going to be beautiful.” For them, solar shingles were a natural fit.
Along with his brother Sean, Chris owns Murphy Brothers Contracting, which emphasizes that “building green is just building smart.” The home Murphy Brothers built, with Crozier Gedney Architects, is a perfect example of the kind of architecture that doesn’t work as well with solar panels: It’s built in a coastal colonial style, with not just one or two planes making up the roof, but at least seven. On this roof, the solar shingles are subtle, catching the light like patches of ice.
I spoke about Murphy Brothers’ philosophy with the company’s director of new business development, Michael Murphy (no relation to Chris and Sean: “We’re kind of like The Ramones,” he says).
Michael Murphy confirmed that shingles aren’t yet as efficient as panels because so far their main purpose has been to be a better-looking alternative, not a more powerful one. A typical 5kW installation can cut your expenses by about 57-74 percent. For this much power, you would need either about 22 panels or 84 shingles. Most people choose to put shingles on just part of their roof space, like Chris and Diane Murphy did. But it is possible to cover your entire roof with them for even more power and savings.
Because they do two jobs at once, solar shingles cost more than either regular shingles or solar panels would alone. But they’re also eligible for the solar investment tax credit and will pay for themselves in energy savings over time, if you don’t plan to move for a while. Chris Murphy wanted his home to be a shining example, to show his customers that “by spending about 15 percent more up front, they could save 50 percent per year on their energy bill.”
The big solar shingle manufacturers right now are Dow and CertainTeed (Murphy Brothers has been using Dow for about two years). Since shingles are built into your home and not added later, like silicon panels, you’ll be working with an architect and contractor rather than a solar installer. Michael Murphy also recommends bringing one more person into the mix: an energy consultant.
“I’d say the first person you’d want to go to is an energy consultant,” he says. “See if there’s someone that fits your philosophy with their practice, and then from there, if you feel comfortable, have them as part of your team. Then bring along the architect and contractor.” That way green technology will be part of the plan from the beginning, rather than an afterthought squeezed into a design later on.
Michael Murphy has been working in construction for 30 years. His thoughts on renewable energy and ethical consumption echo Sedovic’s, and Sethi’s too. “Because of the conversation about energy efficiency and making buildings more environmentally responsible, you see things trickle down into houses that are standard practice today,” he says.
“Look at the simple toilet. Fifteen years ago, every time you flushed the toilet, 3.5 gallons of water went down the tube, right? Then they said, no, you couldn’t do that; you had to cut that in half, so they cut it in half and had these toilets that were horrible, and people were flushing them three times, which was using even more water. But today, toilets are incredibly good, and they only use, in some cases, less than a gallon of water.”
You can think of solar technology as being somewhere in that last stage of toilets. It’s not only more efficient, imaginative, and affordable than before, but also, through research, continuing to get even better.
The solar future is a design paradise.
Alternative solar technology doesn’t end with the shingle. Like the deep ocean, it’s filled with bizarre, wondrous forms that stretch the boundaries of the imagination. Here are some of my favorites:
This egg-shaped tiny home is a dream inside a nightmare — your refuge at the edge of a post-apocalyptic universe.
A man cave, a she shack, a retreat for a very small hippie commune, this geodesic greenhouse can do everything but keep your secrets from the outside world.
Okay, this next one is not so weird. It’s just a cheese grater lookalike that can harness the sun’s energy from any direction. Imagine a roof full of them, like robot skin covered in hives.
Researchers in China, proving that nothing is more poetic than science, have also just developed a solar panel that can generate power from humble raindrops.
Some of this new technology is available already (like the Ecocapsule, which sells for just under 80,000 euros), while some of it is still being developed with no release date yet in sight, like the solar orb. Much of it is made possible thanks to something called “thin-film” solar technology. While panels are made with silicon, thin film is made with several different compounds, particularly two main ones: cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS). Thin film is quite literally more flexible than traditional silicon panels, so it can take all kinds of shapes: windows, film you can apply to your windows — even paint.
Thin film has been around since the late 1970s, when it made the solar-powered calculator possible. If you still have such a calculator, and not just a phone app, you’ll see it in that little iridescent strip at the top. Although it’s been around for so many years, it hasn’t grown as much as the solar panel because it falls short in efficiency. It has also been made with elements that are less abundant and more toxic than silicon. But that might all be changing now.
Just recently, thin film has begun surpassing silicon panels in efficiency. Researchers have also found new compounds, like copper zinc tin sulfide (CZTS), which are not only increasingly efficient, but also non-toxic and renewable.
Apart from the chemistry, one other complication about thin film, and the building-integrated materials it’s used for, is that it belongs to two worlds: solar energy and construction. These two industries have different codes and even different systems of measurement: The construction industry measures components in square meters, whereas the solar industry measures in watts. Being at an intersection, it also has fewer dedicated specialists at every stage, from research (where environmental scientists, engineers, and architects may not be communicating) through installation and maintenance (where you may have trouble finding an electrician willing to work on top of a high commercial building).
Despite these hurdles, demand is growing for alternative solar technology because of the many shapes it can take. Sedovic looks forward to a variety of spherical, cast, and even 3D-printed solar that exceeds what we can even imagine right now. “That would be fantastic,” he says. “That could truly influence our architectural vocabulary.”
The right conditions for going solar
When going solar, you have to consider the characteristics of your house — or your yard, if you go with ground-mounted panels. Beyond that, there are several important factors to keep in mind about your environment as well:
- Temperature: This is counterintuitive, but solar cells are more efficient in colder weather. Just as your computer can slow down as it overheats, so can these cells. However, since colder weather probably means more snow and fewer solar days, each region has its pros and cons for solar energy.
- Shade: The more big trees you have casting their shadows across your house, the less viable surface area you’ll have for solar.
- Insolation: How much sunlight does your property receive? If you live in a perpetually-overcast region, you’ll have fewer solid solar days.
Both Michael Murphy and Walter Sedovic say that the northeastern US is not the most solar-friendly region, due to the complex roofs (with their gables and high chimneys), the old trees, and the number of gray days per year. For Murphy Brothers, this means solar is only one part of making a house energy efficient, along with building materials like insulated concrete and recycled-paper countertops.
For Sedovic’s firm, it means combining solar with other kinds of renewable energy, like wind, tidal, and geothermal. It also means the company rarely incorporates solar technology into its designs, except for buildings that are already off the grid, like lighthouses.
But Sedovic thinks he will have an exciting chance to use solar shingles soon. Right now, he’s working on a design for the restoration of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Council House in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The house was built in 1878, and then taken away by the US government 30 years later. Only in 2010 were the Muscogee people able to buy it back.
Oklahoma’s climate is better for solar than New York’s, and Sedovic thinks this might be the perfect chance to use new technology in a meaningful way. “I think that it also complements the Creek Nation’s own intellect,” he says, “being very forward-thinking in all the things that they do, in their social constructs, educational constructs, gender equality, and so forth. They are a really remarkable culture, and this would fit in well with that.”
As technology develops, we may be moving both forward and backward toward a gentler, more cooperative relationship with the Earth.
If you still don’t want to change your house or yard at all, check out community solar.
We’ve covered solar that steals the spotlight, solar that blends in seamlessly, and solar that hides from view, mounted on the ground. But there is yet another option, one even more unobtrusive than ground-mounted panels, and that is community solar. Otherwise known as a shared renewable energy arrangement, it entails using energy from panels located far out of view on a solar farm.
Community solar is still pretty new — there are only 89 projects in the US so far. But I’m interested in keeping an eye on it for several reasons: It not only escapes the question of aesthetics all together; but also presents the lowest commitment, and it’s perfect for renters. More options like this one could speed the spread of renewable energy and make the world that much greener.
The Bottom Line
There’s something magical about finding pleasure and virtue in the same place, like an antioxidant-rich glass of wine or The Daily Show. If you’re open to it, renewable energy can live right in this place. The more energy creative people — from scientists to architects — put into it, and the more we consumers demand it, the more it will flourish in unexpected and revolutionary ways.
“The sun is about as prevalent as a natural resource could come,” says Marsh. “Everyone could generate electricity from it if you showed them how. And we will only get better at harnessing it.”