Solar Cities

September 24, 2017

undefinedNestled along the waterfront in the Nordhavn neighbourhood of Denmark’s capital city sits a very special building. The Copenhagen International School is coated from top to toe with solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, making it one of the largest buildings of its kind anywhere in the world. Seamlessly integrated into the building’s 6,000 square metre glass facade, the cells produce around 300 megawatt hours per year of electricity, around half the school’s annual power demand. And this in a Northern European city not noted for its sunny climate.

Somewhat surprisingly, while the solar component was made in Switzerland, the 12,000 KromatixTM coloured glass panels used in the building’s construction were manufactured and supplied by Emirates Insolaire, a subsidiary of Dubai Investments in joint venture with SwissINSO Holding. And yet, even though a significant portion of this innovative technology is manufactured in Dubai, Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) has yet to be deployed on a single major project in the emirate despite the optimal solar considtions in this part of the world.

While Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) allows solar panels to be installed on building rooftops under its Shams Dubai initiative, authorities here have yet to finalise the regulations governing the use of BIPV technology. But with the Dubai government’s strong track record of backing sustainability initiatives, experts predict it is only a matter of time before it gets the green light. In fact a number of high profile projects announced over the past year have already been earmarked to pioneer BIPV technology in the region.

Anoop Babu is a BIPV solar expert with Intec, part of Germany-based GOPA -International Energy Consultants. Anoop is also a local representative for the Association of Solar Architects (ASA), an advocacy group for the worldwide deployment of BIPV technology, who has been advising local authorities currently drafting a set of BIPV regulations. Though DEWA is the main entity charged with forming the regulations, they must also meet requirements laid down by Dubai Municipality and Dubai Civil Defence (DCD).

Meanwhile, other parts of the world, mainly in North America and Europe, have been forging ahead with the deployment of BIPV, even in heavily congested urban environments like New York City. In Europe, by 2020 every building will be mandated to generate some energy of its own, with BIPV offering one obvious solution to that challenge.

Ideal for the Middle East

You might assume that using BIPV technology would multiply the cost of a building facade by a factor of two or three but this is not the case, says Anoop. Integrating the cells into a building’s windows and facades adds around 30-40% to the cost and can pay for itself in as little as two to three years, depending on the electricity tariff system used.

“There’s a misconception that BIPV is more expensive than it really is,” says Anoop. “In the UAE if you go for a normal glass façade the EPC price would be around AED 1,500 – 2,000 per square metre. BIPV will cost around 2,000 – 3,000 per square metre so that’s an additional 30-40%. Many people still assume it is even more expensive, double or triple the cost.”

In some parts of the world, for example in North America, the Feed in Tariff (FiT) for BIPV is higher than for regular rooftop solar in order to encourage developers to roll out the technology. Anoop believes the authorities here should also consider offering incentives to help speed up deployment.

“Next year VAT is coming in and companies might start holding back on investing in solar,” he says. “Solar is exempt from VAT in some parts of the world so we’ve suggested to DEWA implementing a tax benefit that might encourage people to invest.”

Architects need to be involved in BIPV projects from the very start which is why using the technology is more practical for buildings at the design stage rather than a retrofitting job, Anoop says. In terms of maintenance BIPV is just like any other window or façade. However building owners opting for integrated PV will need to consider how they keep their facades clean as desert dust can hinder the solar cells from operating at maximum efficiency.

“There are technologies nowadays that have the ability to keep off the soiling, for example pv panels which prevent dust from clinging to the surface,” Anoop says.

The time is now

The region is very much ready for BIPV, Anoop says. There has already been plenty of interest in its potential but developers are waiting for regulations to be announced. 

“They have to do this if they want to really get the benefit of alternative energy and renewables because they have so much facade space,” he says. “Tall buildings don’t have much roof space but they have lots of facade space.”

The suitability of a building for BIPV depends on how much sun the west, east and south facades of the building receive. For example, a high rise building in a densely packed city might have other nearby buildings blocking out the sun. For smaller buildings this can also be a problem if there are high rise buildings nearby.

“We do analysis and irradiance mapping and identify which areas of a building should have BIPV,” Anoop says. “In general, it works best for buildings with large areas that can be covered with BIPV. Malls work well because many of them, Mall of the Emirates for example, don’t have any high rise buildings around them.”

So how long might it take before BIPV technology is used as standard in this part of the world?

“Once the first two or three projects are live and have proven to be successful it might well become mandated,” Anoop says. “Shams Dubai plays very well with warehouses and carports but many building developers get minimal benefit from Shams Dubai because most of them don’t have that kind of rooftop or parking area. Property developers will get more benefit from BIPV.”

He adds: “This is going to be a very fast moving industry in the coming years. There are many companies with their eyes on this market. They’re just waiting for the regulations.” 


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