Why solar will be built into our future cities
Solar power and other renewable energy sources are increasingly affordable as technologies continues to become more efficient and effective, and the opportunities to scale solutions brings costs down even further. As much as the transition from a fossil-fuel based economy to one powered by renewables is becoming more widely recognised, what is sometimes lost is just how rapid the change has been. Furthermore, it appears the next natural step is a renewable energy inspired transformation of the way in which we design our future buildings and cities.
During the last six years in the US alone, “solar power has exploded into the energy sector with the kind of industrial vigour not seen since the 1950s”, wrote David Beckham in GreenBiz earlier this month. In 2010, the US had the equivalent of one gigawatt of solar generation capabilities, for perspective on what that means in terms of power demands, Disney Land uses roughly that amount every two weeks – it’s also less than the Doc needed to get the DeLorean running again in Back to the Future! Capacity has ballooned to 30 gigawatts of solar power generation at the beginning of 2016 and is continuing to grow at a rapid pace, mostly thanks to the lowering of costs with the average solar cell now costings $0.35 per watt, compared with around $4 in 2006, all while increasing efficiency by 20%.
Throw in increased volatility in fossil fuel prices – especially oil – and diminishing efficiency gains for non-renewable based technologies, and it should come as no surprise that there is increasing investment and innovation into solar power, not to mention demand, where more panels were installed in the US during 2016 than the previous 38 years combined. Furthermore, digital advances are enabling better understanding and control of complexity and data, a huge advantage for less consistent natural sources of power like solar and wind.
The flexibility of renewables enables designers and architects to adopt a new way of thinking and there are now a growing number of examples where the potential opportunities of integrating energy production into the design of buildings and cities from the outset are being exploited.
Joining up built environment construction and design with renewable energy to create a more diverse, distributed and resilient system of power production integrated directly into cities offers the possibility of producing a holistic solution to individual challenges, the AMIE prototype, produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which integrates solar panels, into a connected home and electric vehicle is one great recent example.
Photovoltaic technologies designed for integration into building components produced by corporates like Californian-based Solaria, who have developed especially effective solar tech so that they can produce glass that can be used in typical window openings, is fully see through and generates electricity, are predicted to become increasingly common. Indeed, the level of development and scale of Solaria itself may surprise some.
“Architectural solar” is still in relative infancy, but if anything can be learned by the growth of solar power generation, which few would have expected to be economically viable by 2016 looking at the 2010 landscape, it is that technology with potential can and will be developed exceptionally quickly in a context where there is demand for the solutions it provides. The ORNL experiment and current solutions sold by Solaria may only be a beginning, but anticipating rapid evolution looks like a good bet.