At first glance, the awnings over the sidewalk and entryway at a new Toronto-Dominion Bank branch in Mississauga, just west of Toronto, look pretty normal.
On closer inspection, it's clear these glass sheets – translucent panels in metal frames, adorned with an attractive grid of dark squares – are designed to do more than protect customers from the elements.
This is one of the few installations in Canada of "building integrated" photovoltaic solar panels, also known as BIPV. It's an approach to renewable energy that is poised to expand dramatically in the coming years, with global industry revenues set to leap from around $2-billion a year in 2012 to more than $35-billion in 2019, according to an analysis from Virginia-based research firm NanoMarkets.
The idea is simple: Replace conventional building materials with elements that incorporate solar cells. Cells are built into glass, wall panels or roof tiles to become part of the building, instead of add-ons or attachments. Formerly passive structural components now produce power, cutting down on a building's outside electricity consumption – and, eventually, lowering energy costs.
Les Lyster, chief executive of Toronto-based solar panel maker Eclipsall Energy Corp. is witnessing this solar shift firsthand. His company, which made the solar components for TD's Mississauga branch, says BIPV products currently comprise about 10 per cent of the business, but Mr. Lyster says he expects that number to rise as high as 50 per cent in the next year or so.
While it takes time for BIPV systems to generate a financial payback – since the solar-integrated building materials are usually more expensive than the materials they are replacing – that balance is shifting as technology improves and energy costs rise.
Currently, though, most companies installing building-integrated systems are still doing so to test the technology, or to demonstrate their green credentials.
That's clearly part of the motivation at TD, which has installed solar panels in one form or another at 94 branch locations across North America.
"We are committed to be an environmental leader," so high-profile solar installations that are noticed by customers and employees are important, says Jacquelynn Henke, vice-president of innovation at TD's enterprise real estate division. "They are easy to see. That gives us the opportunity to start a conversation about the environment …[and] it gives a sense of engagement."
While the Mississauga branch is the first example of BIPV at one of TD's Canadian buildings, Ms. Henke said, the technology is already widespread in the bank's U.S. operations, where several branches have solar panels integrated into canopies over their drive-through lanes.
While the PR value is crucial, energy cost savings are also important, she said.
On average, the solar-panel-equipped drive-through canopies generate 12 to 18 per cent of each branch's electricity needs. And now that the construction has been standardized, they are actually cheaper to build than the non-solar canopies.
At the Mississauga branch, which opened in October, the bank is still evaluating the performance and power output of the solar awnings. The branch also has geothermal heating and LED lighting, so the entire project is designed to have a significantly lower energy footprint than older branches.
Still, there are barriers to the expansion of building-integrated solar power.
First, antiquated building and electrical codes, which were written long before this technology was even considered, are slowing its spread. "There is a lot of bureaucracy now [getting in the way of] moving a building-integrated project along," Eclipsall's Mr. Lyster says. "Once that gets a little bit more streamlined, it's going to help drive the costs down."
At the same time, most electrical utilities have complex rules for attaching anything that produces power to the grid – creating another headache.
Despite that, many ambitious projects are now in the works. Mr. Lyster says his company is working with a builder on two planned 50-storey buildings in Toronto where solar panels will be incorporated in the spandrels – the panels between each row of windows.
"If we put building integrated there, we can get up to a 500 or 600 kilowatt system," he says. "That can make a big difference in the [power] a building is going to need to operate."
The building-integrated solar power system at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business pumps out thermal and electrical power at the same time.
The 3,100-square-foot installation, a visually unremarkable dark rectangle covering the top part of the south-west facade, combines photovoltaic modules with a perforated wall cover.
While the panels generate electricity, ventilation air is drawn through the cladding and heated by the sun beating down on the dark surface.
The system actually generates considerably more heat (about 75 kilowatts) than electricity (about 25 kilowatts). That's enough heat for seven Canadian houses and enough electricity to light about 1,250 compact fluorescent light bulbs. It will take decades for this particular demonstration project to pay for itself. But as solar panel prices fall, electricity and gas prices rise, and the efficiency of the installation process improves, that could be cut to a few years in new projects.
Concordia engineering professor Andreas Athienitis, who spearheaded the project, said he and his team are working to improve the design, to make it easier to reproduce in other locations and to cut installation time and cost.
"I think this kind of technology will become widespread in the next 10 or 20 years," for both new buildings and retrofit applications, he said. "It is just a matter of time."
John Hollick, whose company Conserval Engineering Inc. supplied most of the Concordia system, said combining photovoltaics with thermal heating is especially valuable when there is limited room for mounting panels of either type, and an organization wants to get the maximum energy out of the space.
It also ensures that the considerable heat that is generated when the sun hits a solar panel is not wasted.
Mr. Hollick, whose firm has installed several other combined PV and thermal projects since the Concordia experiment, said it helps if the system is designed into the building from its earliest conception.