Green

From the inevitability dept.: Dow debuts solar shingles

Dow Chemical says it is ready for its thin-film solar roofing shingles to go on sale next year — one of the first technologies to make solar panels and roofs one and the same, and a step toward increasing the affordability and physical appeal of going solar for residential consumers.

Dubbed the “Powerhouse” line, the shingles do for rooftop solar what Apple has done for mobile phones: make functional look sexy.

But not so fast. The shingles are still being put through rigorous tests. Dow wants to ensure that the shingles it churns out can live up to the 25-year warranty it plans to offer (standard for the roofing industry). The shingles themselves are pretty pricey, covering 4 square feet and carrying a price tag of $40 each after government subsidies.

Dow’s new technology is not for the average consumer, and the company knows it. Roofs made out of the Powerhouse shingles will cost approximately twice as much as a standard asphalt roof. The important thing, for now, is that the technology works. Once it’s proven in the field, Dow and its competitors can work on bringing prices down.

Raising efficiencies will be just as important as cheapening the product. Right now, the average solar shingle roof could yield 3.5 kilowatts of power — at best (on an intensely sunny day). The average U.S. household uses upwards of 25 kilowatt-hours per day. So the shingles will shave some, but not a lot off users’ energy bills.

Dow says the Powerhouse systems will pay for themselves in utility savings within a decade of installation, but only when federal and state subsidies are factored in. The average homeowner could literally save more money and help the environment by insulating walls and installing a white, heat-reflective roof (a much more affordable option).

The shingles have the same structure as most thin-film solar material. Made out of copper, indium, gallium and selenium, the modules are coated in a proprietary plastic and convert about 13 percent of the sunlight absorbed into usable electricity. This is pretty good, considering that most thin-film panels in use today top out at 11 percent.

Dow says the key to its technology is the plastic coating, making the thin-film cells more durable and efficient than most of its competitors. Dow also has the manufacturing muscle to scale production faster than any startup or venture-backed solar enterprise could hope to.

The company is so confident in its shingles that it estimates the solar roofing market could reach $5 billion in size in just five years. What will that mean for other thin-film players that have yet to diversify in this direction — like First Solar, NanoSolar or Solyndra? What about the companies working on printing ultra-thin solar modules onto conductive surfaces, like Innovalight? Will Dow and its ilk beat them at their own game?

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