BIPV Enabler

New solar software to create greener buildings

Researchers at RMIT in Melbourne have developed software that allows architects and engineers to incorporate building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) into a building’s conceptual design phase.

BIPVs are building features such as roof tiles, cladding and windows that double as solar panels. They can cover larger areas of buildings than traditional roof-mounted panels, and capture more energy using different angles. Despite the potential, roof-mounted panels continue to dominate the solar market, because BIPVs are harder to source and there is a larger complexity in predicting their performance.

RMIT’s new software is designed to enable architects and engineers to source and cost BIPVs and include them in the design stage. Named BIPV Enabler, it is funded by RMIT and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and is the first of its kind to be designed using Australian data.

To BIPV or not to BIPV

Project lead Associate Professor Rebecca Yang, from RMIT’s Solar Energy Application Group, says the tool is the perfect solution for building designers and developers looking to select the right solar option to suit their design.

“We’re making integrated-solar a more attractive option to developers, slicing the time it would normally take to research and implement incognito solar devices,” she says.

“This isn’t just for new buildings either. Those looking to retrofit integrated solar into existing buildings will benefit too.”

The tool integrates product, regulation, technical, economic and construction data to create 3D models and detailed life-cycle simulations tailored to each building’s planned location.

It also addresses the issue designers and developers face when trying to choose and source BIPV materials, because it has Australia’s first photovoltaic product database where Australian suppliers can be easily identified.

In terms of how BIPV might impact heating and cooling loads in buildings, this is still to be fully explored. Prof. Yang represents Australia on the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) joint working group on BIPV, which is investigating the solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) of BIPV.

“Our tool has relevant collected product information on BIPV temperature coefficient, thermal transmittance, etc.” she says. “The tool is for conceptual design, so we do not simulate the thermal impact in it; however, we are developing BIM-based plugins that can support this aspect.”

Australia’s history with BIPV

According to Prof. Yang, BIPV in non-domestic buildings in Australia was first installed around 2000 with the aid of the government’s renewable energy programs.

“But although there were a few installations initially, this trend did not continue as expected,” she says. “There has been more interest from the building sector recently with approved projects and more in planning.

“BIPVs as a roof tile or roof sheet in domestic buildings are growing gradually, although they are poorly documented. To date, award-winning BIPV applications, such as rainscreen facades, windows, balustrades, roof sheets, tiles and skylights, have been installed in Australia. Most of them are small units in capacities.

“BIPV-integrated roof sheets, tiles, skylights and rainscreens are operated in the niche market, whereas others, such as balustrades, curtain walls and windows, are in the demonstration phases.”

Barriers include a lack of widespread industry knowledge of the life-cycle economic and environmental impacts, especially among investors, designers and specifiers.

RMIT architecture lecturer Nic Bao says the amount of technical factors that had to be considered when incorporating BIPV into a design has also prevented it from becoming a popular choice. He believes having a tool to effortlessly incorporate factors such as climate, building code and materials will make solar-savvy design easier.

“Making BIPV design more accessible promotes sustainable development of energy-efficient buildings, while providing opportunities for low-carbon architecture,” he says.

The researchers at RMIT hope BIPV Enabler will help bridge the gap between BIPV technology and architectural design.

Yang says BIPV Enabler works with computer-aided design programs, and can be scaled and customised to incorporate other open-source datasets to suit changing needs.

“We hope to see more buildings capable of generating solar electricity, while maintaining good design standards – a win for the planet and aesthetics,” she says.

Prof. Yang is driving a BIPV alliance in Australia through the Australian PV Institute to support the industry. More information is available here.

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