Thousands of Americans install solar energy systems on their roofs each year. Most commonly, that means solar panels mounted on racks, but another option may become more accessible: solar shingles.
“What we’ve done is we’ve created a shingle that has solar properties,” said Martin DeBono, president of GAF Energy, which is a sibling company of GAF, a roofing manufacturer with a network of more than 10,000 contractors across the country. “While someone is getting a new roof, we can offer them a solar roof.”
The Timberline Solar shingles are a bit bigger and about twice as heavy as traditional shingles, but look remarkably similar.
The top half is nailed to the roof, while the bottom half overlaps the previous solar shingle and remains exposed. The outward-facing section of a solar shingle is made of photovoltaic cells, rather than asphalt. The panels collect energy and then transfer it through wires on the end of each shingle that daisy-chain together.
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The goal is to lower the cost of rooftop solar by combining roofing and solar installation, said DeBono, who uses his own home as an example. His traditional roof, he said, cost around $28,000, and the solar panels he installed would be around $24,000, for a total price tag of around $52,000, or about $44,000 after rebates and incentives — which can include tax credits. In comparison, he estimated a GAF Energy solar roof would cost approximately $42,000 and drop to around $30,000 after incentives, saving about $14,000.
The shingles from GAF Energy, whose parent company is Standard Industries, come with a 25-year warranty, which the company said should be enough time for a customer to recoup the cost of the system through reduced utility bills — especially in states where electricity is more expensive. It’s a proposition that the company hopes will make its product more successful than previous attempts.
Solar shingles have been around in some form for decades, said Zachary Holman, a professor of engineering at Arizona State University who specializes in solar technology. “Many people have played in this space,” he said, including Tesla and other roofing companies such as CertainTeed. Another company, Maxeon Solar Technologies, is aiming to make adhesive solar panels.
“I’d see it more on supply chain and business innovation,” said Holman of this latest effort, pointing to GAF’s expansive installer network and the fact that the shingles can be nailed. “They have channels for distribution that I think all of the other players — including Tesla — haven’t had access to.”
Rooftop solar on small buildings could theoretically meet a quarter of electricity demand in the United States, a 2016 assessment from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found. But putting efficient, durable and eye-pleasing solar panels on roofs at a reasonable cost hasn’t been easy. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, less than 3 percent of single-family homes have any type of solar system installed.
Costs have dropped rapidly in the past decade, though, and the Energy Department says that “solar power is more affordable, accessible, and prevalent in the United States than ever before.” The department has a guide for exploring solar at home — including tools for estimating a home’s rooftop solar potential and navigating the many available federal, state and local solar incentives, and credits. There are also resources for learning about the variety of lease, loan and other financing options that exist.
And, as solar shingles demonstrate, the market is continually shifting.
“It’s flush, it’s cool and you get all the power you need. But there are risks,” said Cherif Kedir, president of the Renewable Energy Test Center, which tests and certifies products for a range of companies, including GAF Energy. One risk is that “you have a product that is in direct contact with your roof,” Kedir said. That can lead to heat management issues, Holman said.
While traditional solar modules have air gaps of a couple of inches to a few feet from the roof, solar shingles would not. That means the shingles may get hotter, which could reduce their efficiency and also potentially make it harder to keep the inside of a home cool.
“The main challenge is convincing me it’s going to last,” said David Fenning, director of the Solar Energy Innovation Laboratory at the University of California at San Diego. Even with a warranty, he said, “no one wants problems with their roofs.”
GAF Energy has been developing and testing its solar shingles for the past three years, including with Sandia National Laboratories, an Energy Department research and development facility. While Sandia testing data isn’t available yet, DeBono said he expects the company’s shingles should be as efficient as traditional solar modules.
The company will offer its solar shingles only through GAF installers. They will be available on the East Coast immediately and nationwide in the next few months. DeBono said the goal is to have 10 percent of all the roofs that GAF installs will have solar shingles within the next three years — which could translate to more than 100,000 new solar roofs annually.
DeBono says his worry isn’t whether the shingles will sell — it’s whether the company can keep up with demand.
“It looks great, goes up fast and it’s legit,” said DeBono. “We think that many people will choose now to go solar.”