The dream of integrating solar power with building materials has been a source of wonder for decades, but aesthetics has been one of the biggest challenges, according to Anna Dyson, director of the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology, or CASE.
Most applications presented so far, according to Ms. Dyson,
“are pretty ugly and impede your view.”
Let’s face it architects and developers have to have aesthetics in mind, even when it comes to saving energy, because consumers want to be in fashion – and can you blame them?
Many building-integrated solar technologies are also somewhat inefficient, Ms. Dyson said, which means that large parts of a building have to be covered with solar energy-gathering materials, in order to receive significant benefits.
CASE, a research and development collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and other engineering and architectural companies are confident in their abilities to overcome these challenges.
The group has developed what it calls a Dynamic Solar Facade — a glass frontage that looks something like an oversize bead curtain, with rows of transparent, pyramid-shaped concentrators, configured in a honeycomb pattern and hung up on wires that move from up to down, or twist from side to side, in order to track the sun.
Every concentrator comes equipped with a lens that magnifies light nearly 500 times and directs it to a postage stamp-size Spectrolab solar cell made of gallium arsenide.
The concentrators also bring light into the building while deflecting heat and glare, thereby reducing the need for artificial light during the day.
Meanwhile, heat sinks placed behind the solar cells absorb the sun’s warmth and may be used to heat water in the building.
Together, the Dynamic Solar Facade uses the sun’s light and heat with 60 to 80% efficiency, Ms. Dyson said, who also added that savings in electricity and heating costs could pay for the system in as little as two and a half years.
CASE has installed its first full-scale demonstration project – 64 concentrators in an 8-by-10-foot glass installation at the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems. It is scheduled to open in March.
Commercialization also depends on the ability of Spectrolab, which makes the gallium-arsenide cells.
The technology is apparently stylish enough to satisfy one prominent client: the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Though still a few years away, they have plans to include the solar facade in the development of a new student center.