The U.S. faces serious energy challenges. With aging nuclear facilities, increased strain on fossil fuel sources and the International Energy Agency projecting a 76 percent increase in energy demand by 2030, renewable-energy sources—such as solar energy—have a big future.
Solar energy also presents serious dilemmas, including high capital costs, broad skill sets required to build photovoltaic (PV) systems and problems created by widespread grid-connected PV systems. However, unlike other energy sources, we won't run out of solar energy any time soon; we just need to learn how to better harness solar resources.
Solar on the rise
It is important you understand several things about solar energy.
First, capital investment in new energy sources must be compared with costs of traditional energy sources on a level playing field. Too often, we incorrectly compare a PV system's cost to the cost of electricity produced from existing power plants. But if the full costs of developing new power plants and fuel development are considered, solar energy is cheaper to create than other forms of electricity. Gradually, U.S. energy policies will need to shift to reflect this economic reality.
Also, in an unregulated competitive market for electricitywhich the U.S. does not have—solar energy has an excellent competitive advantage because it typically is generated during peak demand periods, making it more valuable in the electricity market. In the U.S., smart meters and progressive utility rate structures will continue to expand and account for this value.
Additionally, there are rapidly evolving energy storage technologies that greatly will increase PV modules' ability to be connected to a grid by acting as buffers between distributed PV systems and the existing electrical grid.
Solar energy clearly is on the rise. In response, the roofing industry is taking steps to play a significant role in the solar revolution. Roofing product manufacturers are expanding alliances with PV manufacturers; roofing contractors are expanding efforts and competencies to market and install PV systems; and roofing industry organizations—including NRCA, The Roofing Industry Alliance for Progress and the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing—are helping position the industry for solar energy's expansion.
Roof-integrated solar energy is not without challenges. We have a lot to learn about how to join roofing and solar technologies in ways that maintain durability and support PV system performance. In the meantime, those planning rooftop PV installations must consider roof system and substrate durability; ballasted systems' long-term effects on roof systems; temperature changes created by roof-mounted PV systems; and accommodations that must be made for roof system and PV system maintenance.
New approaches to integrate PV systems with cool and vegetative roof systems are being developed with mixed results in variable climates. Strategies for integrating roof systems and associated electrical work also are emerging and, in many cases, providing win-win partnerships between roofing professionals and electricians. Marketing strategies that weave PV installations with scheduled roof system replacements also are experiencing increased success.
With new PV systems being installed every day, we continue to learn important lessons that will help us deploy rooftop solar energy.
The education obstacle
In February, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced the Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative. Derived from the "Moon Shot" challenge of the 1960s in which former President John F. Kennedy committed to putting a man on the moon, the SunShot Initiative intends to evoke an all-out challenge to reduce solar energy's installed cost to $1 per watt.
Interestingly, after reviewing the primary contributors to solar installation costs, the DOE Solar Energy Program's market transformation team has identified training and education of building code officials as a priority to reduce installation costs during the next year. This conclusion indicates a primary obstacle to solar energy market expansion: education.
To successfully deploy solar energy on a large scale, the U.S. will require thousands of qualified sales, finance, engineering and project management professionals, as well as a work force trained to install and commission PV systems safely and efficiently.
To address this challenge, NRCA and the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing have developed Roof Integrated Solar Energy™ (RISE™) Inc., a program intended to evaluate and certify solar roofing professionals to support widespread use of rooftop solar energy.
RISE evaluates PV system installers on their knowledge of critical roof system construction and maintenance practices necessary to support successful rooftop PV system installations based on principles regarding PV system installation and maintenance without adversely affecting roof system performance and service life. Individuals who meet RISE's requirements receive Certified Solar Roofing Professional™ (CSRP™) certification.
Since its inception in 2010, RISE has graduated its first two classes of CSRPs. For a list of CSRPs, go to www.riseprofessional.org.
Additionally, in 2009, DOE formed a national network of regional training providers with a primary mission to cultivate solar energy education and training throughout the U.S. Now entering its second year, the program offers curriculum development and training for instructors at community colleges, universities and training centers.
Building upon a previous partnership with NRCA, one of those training providers, the Northern Mid-Atlantic Solar Education and Resource Center based at Penn State University, University Park, Pa., has worked with NRCA University to develop a study guide and online course to support RISE and help accelerate CSRP certification.
The study guide, which also is available at www.riseprofessional.org, is intended to help professional roofing contractors who have some knowledge of roof-mounted PV systems brush up on key issues before taking RISE's CSRP certification exam. The guide addresses various topics, including planning and implementing safety requirements; identifying structural, roof assembly and PV system design issues; fundamental electrical principals; marketing PV systems; and managing and directing PV system installation.
The online training course, which is being developed, will support roofing professionals who want to learn more about roof-mounted PV systems; lack knowledge in one or more of the domains outlined in the job task analysis for CSRPs; or are seeking a structured, well-rounded educational experience that satisfies the CSRP 40-hour requirement. The course will address each domain outlined in the CSRP job task analysis and is expected to be completed by August.
Although many challenges loom for the solar industry, it is progressing. And with each successful PV system installation, momentum builds, experience accumulates and costs decrease. The promise of clean, affordable, renewable energy continues to become more of a reality.
David Riley is an associate professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, University Park, Pa.