Two years ago, the global market for solar energy saw an exponential growth. This was mainly due to national supportive policies and the increased instability of fossil fuel prices. We are approaching the end of 2012 and the price of silicon modules has dropped rapidly, leaving little to no profit margins for upstream solar companies and driving many to bankruptcy. Simultaneously, governments are reducing subsidies due to the latest financial crisis while natural gas prices are dropping1. It seems that the solar industry is in a difficult period. Nonetheless, according to a recent report from consultants McKinsey & Co 2 “…these are natural growing pains, not death throes. The industry is entering a period of maturation that is likely to set the conditions for more stable and expansive growth after 2015”. Despite the market vibrations, PV prices are expected to continue dropping (Figure 1) while sales would rise, increasing significantly the PV capacity installed (Figure 2), which is estimated to outpace the installation rates of gas, wind, hydro and possibly nuclear.

Figure 1: The global PV module price learning curve for crystalline silicon (c-Si) modules, 1979 to 2015

Figure 2: Various scenaria on global cumulative installed PV capacity

By 2020, 53% to 66% of the global PV installations are predicted to be on residential and commercial buildings, while PV farms will have only 15% to 23% of the share (Figure 3). In addition, across the PV value chain at the OECD countries, it is estimated that the downstream players will have more opportunities to succeed by delivering high quality products and services tailored at the needs of the customers. This creates the conditions for Building Integrated Photovoltaic technologies to emerge in the marketplace, after 25 years of R&D.

Figure 3: IEA scenario on cumulative installed PV capacity by end-use sector

Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) refers to photovoltaic cells or modules which are integrated into the building envelope, replacing conventional and/or premium building materials – such as roof shingles, wall cladding (e.g. polished stone), windows, overhangs – rather than being installed afterwards. BIPV is a multifunctional technology 3. Besides the generation of solar electricity, BIPV might serve the additional purposes of weather and noise barrier, heat generation (BIPV/Thermal) and daylight utilization (Semi-Transparent PV), converting up to 80% of the incident solar radiation to useful energy (electricity, heat and space illumination).

Beyond the building-scale, BIPV demonstrates advantages in the community-scale as well. BIPV is located on buildings, thereby eliminating the need for specifically devoted land. In addition, BIPV provides distributed electricity generation that could contribute to grid “peak demand shaving”, resulting in reduced need for peak-capacity power plants. Finally, on commercial buildings BIPV applications, on-site electricity generation can partly meet daily electricity consumption building profile, while eliminating grid transmission losses.

Manufacturing techniques that are common in mature industries (e.g. curtain wall industry) will result in BIPV modularity, preassembly and standardization. Module prices are expected to drop, transforming BIPV to an economically attractive technology, in addition to its aesthetic superiority, energy efficiency and added value as an energy generating element, with no moving parts and inherently a permanent part of the building envelope. However, the path to success will require the solar and building industries to partner in order to reduce product and installation cost without giving up novelty; there will still be a need for government incentive measures. As the solar industry is approaching a tipping point, the timing of viability for BIPV products is now, ensuring a bright though challenging future.


1 Birol, F., Besson, C., & Gould, T. (2012). Golden rules for a golden age of gas. International Energy Agency, Paris.

2 Aanesen, K., Heck, S., & Pinner, D. (2012). Solar power: Darkest before dawn. McKinsley& Co., New York.

3 Montoro, D. F., Vanbuggenhout, P., & Ciesielska, J. (2011). Building integrated photovoltaics: An overview of the existing products and their fields of application. European Photovoltaic Industry Association.

4 Frankl, P. (2010). Technology Roadmap: Solar photovoltaic energy. International Energy Agency, Paris.

Costa3-Costa Kapsis (PhD Student in BIPV, Year 4 at Concordia University)

Cost Kapsis is a doctoral student at Concordia University and an HQP at the NSERC Photovoltaic Innovation Network (PVIN) and the NSERC Smart Net-Zero Energy Buildings Network (SNEBRN). Recipient of the ASHRAE Grant-In-Aid award, Costa’s research topic is on Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) technologies, while he involved on the passive solar design of various commercial and institutional buildings in Canada and abroad.