An Intro to Building-Integrated Photovoltaics Pt. 1: Market Outlook

Travis Lowder's picture

Form has long played second fiddle to function in the world of solar PV, but building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are out to change that paradigm. BIPV encompasses a group of solar technologies that are built directly into the envelope of the host building, instead of mounted on the building's exterior. Whether it's a roof, a window, a fa├žade, or a curtain wall (an outer covering to a building that doesn't carry any structural load; see bottom-left photo), BIPV modules can actually replace the construction materials that would otherwise be incorporated into such surfaces. BIPV performs the same functions as the replaced structures (e.g. keeping out the weather) while at the same time generating electricity for onsite use. The semiconducting materials found in BIPV applications are much the same as you would find in the traditional PV technologies—and just as with traditional PV, crystalline silicon (c-Si) modules dominate the market.

Three examples of BIPV. Clockwise from top: roof shingles, atrium roof, and curtain wall.

Figure 1: Three examples of BIPV. Clockwise from top: roof shingles (amorphous silicon), atrium roof (crystalline silicon), and curtain wall (crystalline silicon).
Source: NREL.

Historically, the BIPV market was comprised of just a few niche applications, but opportunities for growth are on the horizon. I'll discuss some of those opportunities, as well as where the BIPV market may be headed. Two follow-up articles will address some of BIPV's challenges to market adoption, and the policy support BIPV has received in international markets.

BIPV today accounts for only a shred (roughly 1% as of 2009) of the distributed PV market worldwide [1].  Though BIPV technologies have been around for over 30 years, they have found little traction outside of R&D labs and a few demonstration projects. One of the key limitations is BIPV's higher system costs. While market data for this is scant, the latest Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Tracking the Sun report pegs 2010 BIPV installations on new homes in California (the principal BIPV market in the United States) at $1/W more than rack mounted systems in the 2-3 kW range [2]. My next post will have more on the reasons for this discrepancy.

Importantly, because BIPV may displace some building materials and often does not require rack mounting, there may be an offset value to BIPV technologies that can be recovered in the construction process and ultimately drive down installation costs. In fact, a recently published NREL report on BIPV costs in the U.S. residential sector, finds that BIPV possesses the near-term potential to compete with, and perhaps undercut, c-Si flat panel installation prices. This is especially true for new build, where some installation costs can be folded into construction costs [2]. The NREL report stresses, however, that cost advantages in the installation process may not be enough to compensate for BIPV's potential system performance shortcomings (lower efficiencies, higher operating temperatures, etc.) which equate to a higher levelized cost of energy [1].

Regardless of the reported market prices [2], some analysts and industry stakeholders are forecasting a growth stage for BIPV. A 2010 Greentech Media Research report identified BIPV as one of the fastest growing segments of the solar industry, particularly in Europe where some countries have BIPV-specific incentives [3]. BIPV also seems to have become the darling of the market research community, with favorable outlooks from such firms as BCC Research and Frost and Sullivan [4, 5].  The drivers of this growth will likely come from increased demand from the building trades (e.g. architects and designers), technological maturation, and consumer interest. It should be noted that growth in the general PV market will likely foster an increase in the size of the BIPV market, though not necessarily in its market share (i.e., its competitiveness relative to flat panels).

In the near term, roofing applications will likely prove the fastest growing segment of the BIPV market [4]. If installations only require roofing labor as well as the limited involvement of an electrician in the final steps, some of the more costly developer expenses could be effectively circumvented. This cost advantage will be further reinforced if module prices can drop at a faster clip than flat panels (which may prove difficult in a world of freefalling PV module prices), and as the construction and BIPV industries progress along their learning curves.

And even if BIPV cannot edge out flat panels on cost, it retains the advantage of aesthetics. Technological developments such as module transparency, the increasing availability of color options, and flexible form factors have extended BIPV's market reach, and it is expected that some consumers will pay premiums to get a sexy and integrated system, as opposed to the garden-variety, add-on flat-panel system. In analyzing the BIPV market, behavioral economics are as much of a consideration as are the economics of price.
Stay tuned for my next Market Insight on BIPV challenges.


[1] James, Ted, and Alan Goodrich, Michael Woodhouse, Robert Margolis, and Sean Ong. Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) in the Residential Sector: An Analysis of Installed Rooftop System Prices. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, November 2011.
[2]  Barbose, Galen, and Naim Darghouth, Ryan Wiser, and Joachim Seel. Tracking the Sun IV: An Historical Summary of the Installed cost of Photovoltaics in the united States from 1998 to 2010. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, September 2011.
[3] Greentech Media. Building-Integrated Photovoltaics: An Emerging Market. GTM Research, July 2010.
[4] BCC Research. Building-Integrated Photovolatics (BIPV): Technologies and Global Markets. BCC Research. January, 2011
[5] Solar Novus Today. Frost and Sullivan Forecast High BIPV Growth in Europe. March 22, 2011.

i There is still a lack of consensus regarding the definition of BIPV, due mostly to confusion/disagreement over the degree of module integration. For example, partially or semi-integrated PV systems (which include some mounting and limited functional replacement) are sometimes included in incentive programs and market reports addressed specifically to BIPV technologies. It is perhaps more instructive to regard BIPV as encompassing a “continuum” of integration that may or may not necessitate the installation of additional building materials. [3]


Travis, Your article has great insight. The November 2011 NREL Report does not contemplate the use of Tile Integrated Photovoltaics (TIPV), a much more affordable and sustainable means to integrate many commercially available solar technologies. As per the NREL REport, a-Si has a much greater offset value as a BIPV in a residential application, however the flexible form factor has been limited to flat roofing and more expensive metal roofing. I thought you might be curious to see one such roof tile form factor that can non-invasively accomodate all solar technologies..... TIPV link: I have my fingers crossed and I hope Americans adopt BIPV faster than the China man because his sights are dead set on BIPV! Regards, Dan Arguelles Artezanos Inc.