Harnessing the power of the sun has long been the dream of sustainability advocates, but capturing the energy economically has proven elusive. What, however, if everyone’s roof were transformed into a solar generator, producing electricity for the home and beyond?
While millions upon millions of roofs would seem to be an ideal platform, consumer takeup has been slowed by high-cost, suspect return on investment, and aesthetic concerns. But new technology and design, new economics, and the commitment of the world’s biggest roofing company are poised to change the equation.
“I do believe it will become standard practice for new and, over the next few decades, existing sunny roofs to have solar panels on them,” says Peter Fox-Penner, Director of Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and author of Smart Power. “Homebuilders will routinely include this as part of a new house, probably along with some battery storage and other ‘smart home’ devices.”
Standard Industries, which owns and operates the world’s largest roofing and waterproofing business through its operating companies GAF and BMI Group, is leading the charge. The company hopes to both create a more sustainable world and transform itself in the process.
“Ours is a unique approach to solar, it is the concept of generating energy from every roof,” says Martin DeBono, executive vice president of Standard Industries. “Every opportunity to install a roof is an opportunity to go solar.”
The standard approach has required solar panels to complete an unwieldy journey to your roof. Workers would have to screw in the panels with massive bolts, which often compromised the structural integrity of the roof. The damage done could negate immediate energy savings from solar. GAF is changing that with new technology that integrates solar panels seamlessly into roofing systems.
“The most efficient and effective time to install solar is when a roof is being put on. We are taking the unique approach that solar is part of the roofing ecosystem,” DeBono says. It’s an ecosystem where photovoltaic cells are as much a part of the roof as shingles. “We guarantee the roof, waterproofing, and the solar panel. Solar as part of a new roof becomes a source of energy by design.”
The program is catching on, especially in states that are experiencing a convergence of higher legacy energy costs and a favorable regulatory environment. Standard accounts for nearly one in three roofs in North America, giving it the critical mass to make an immediate impact on the industry.
“We want to forge the path to a more modern, conscious industrialism—one that considers everything from supply chains to sustainability, to renewable energy,” says Standard Industries co-CEO David Winter. “Our commitment to solar and generating energy from every roof epitomizes that mission.”
The US Energy Information Administration provides a state by state analysis of electrical costs. Using Florida as an example, the average monthly cost of electricity is $126.44, one of the most expensive states. A solar roof on a typical, suburban residential home costs around $16,000. With the installation of a solar roof, the electricity bill disappears. A typical utility bill over seven years (the average length of time someone is in their home) totals $10,620.96, more than the cost of the solar part of the roof. Everything beyond that is savings.
The vast majority of homes generate more electricity from their solar panels than the home needs, which can power other properties, says Boston University professor Robert Kaufmann. Kaufmann, director of the school’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, is also a case study.
“My photovoltaic (PV) produces more electricity than I currently use. To ‘use’ this cheap power, I recently purchased a Chevy Bolt, (an electric car, 230-mile range), and am considering heat pump and air-conditioning units,” Kauffmann says. Driving an electric car and reducing his contributions of carbon dioxide emissions are added benefits to the savings his roof provides.
DeBono thinks many people will follow Kaufmann’s example by using their surplus electricity to power cars leading to “a great electrification of transportation.”
But to date, the rollout of solar has been uneven, depending heavily on local laws.
“A lot has to do with incentives,” Kaufmann says. “Here in Massachusetts, we have a thriving PV sector because the state offers solar renewable energy credits. These credits have spawned creative ways of getting PV into the market,” he says. For instance, Kaufmann has a solar roof that that did not cost him anything. Instead, San Francisco-based Sunrun installed it and sells him the power that they generate, a purchase agreement that runs for 20 years. But only a handful of states are creating such an environment for solar; others have been slow to come aboard.
The power company monopolies are entrenched and based on an outdated system that DeBono says needs to be reexamined.
“We have to examine the social contract between utility and community. What we need to examine is the best way to deliver reliable electricity to constituents,” DeBono says.
Standard Industries’ focus right now is on nine states where a favorable regulatory environment and higher utility costs have combined to make rooftop solar more economical for consumers. Those states are California, Florida, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey.
“The cost of the components has reached the point where in those nine states it is a no-brainer, and as costs go down, it’ll be 25 states and then 50,” DeBono says. That might be slight hyperbole, Alaska might not ever be a great solar market, but in the other 49, it’s only a matter of time and favorable policy.
An industry in transition
And in spreading solar from the rooftops, Standard Industries aims to transform the roofing industry’s approach to solar, which has long been based on quick installation and slapping on panels to an existing roof.
“The roofers are now going to have more robust businesses because they will be adding another product line. They can train their employees to sell and install solar, and roofing companies can now rely on a multi-billion company to add value,” DeBono says.
As for the power companies guarding their turf against rooftop solar, Fox-Penner says they have little to fear. There’s enough business to go around.
“Even with extensive solar panels on rooftops, nearly all cities will continue to rely on outside power supplies, so the power system and large utilities will still be needed,” he says. “To cite one example, the city of Boston uses about 6 billion kWh a year. Our research shows that using every sunny rooftop in the city would produce about 1.3 billion kWh a year.”
What solar roofing will do, however, is free up utility companies from firing up expensive backup plants during peak times and building expensive new ones. Instead, they can purchase energy from the surplus produced by homes and have a grid that is less strained and more reliable.
But at the end of the day, this is about forging a new path, both for society and the company.
“We are keenly focused on the opportunity to deliver both an industrial and social impact in everything we do,” says David Millstone, Standard Industries co-CEO.
In this case, it is the combination of massive scale and innovative technology that can create immediate societal impact.
“Technology has always been the answer when politicians say they can’t do it,” DeBono says. “It has always been up to technology. Technology will always be the answer; policy helps, but technology goes a long way to bridge the divide.”
Standard Industries’ co-CEOs, David Millstone and David Winter, will discuss the new industrialism today at 3:40 p.m. PT at Techonomy 2018. See it live from our homepage.