Dr. Silke Krawietz, CEO & Founder of SETA Network, discusses the urban potential of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). Photo by Shutterstock, Matteo Roma.

As we venture into the era of future cities, the potential of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) cannot be underestimated. In future cities, BIPV will play an integral role in addressing energy demands and reducing carbon footprints. With innovative design approaches, architects and engineers will harness BIPV potential to create visually stunning, eco-friendly structures. As we strive to create a greener tomorrow, BIPV will undeniably shape the skyline of our future cities.

The Paris Agreement marked a pivotal point in the global effort to combat climate change, with the ambitious goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C. The urgency to achieve this target has been underscored by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesis report, which highlighted the catastrophic consequences of surpassing the 1.5°C threshold. In light of the IPCC synthesis report's findings, it is imperative that governments, businesses, and individuals collaborate to ramp up climate action, in order to safeguard our planet's future and thwart the worst effects of climate change.

The message from the IPCC synthesis report must be a call for change to impactful action on climate and a paradigm shift in the mindset, based on the concept we are “part of Nature and not separate”. The construction sector has the largest contribution to CO2 emissions and has not yet reached its full potential to deliver the transformative change required to decarbonise the global economy on the way to net zero.

Worldwide, buildings are responsible for 37% of global carbon emissions and 34% of energy demand (GlobalABC Status Report 2022). Generation renewable electricity on-site particularly through BIPV has a huge untapped potential, especially in combination with parking and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in cities and neighborhoods.

At a global level, cities consume more than two-thirds of the world’s energy resources and are responsible for around the same share of CO2 emissions (C40, Energy & Buildings).
The IPCC report highlighted that at the current pace, the global energy use in buildings could double or even triple by 2050, as the world’s population living in cities is projected to increase in the next decades.

European cities are no exception: today 75% of Europeans live in urban areas. To cope with the size of the challenge and become carbon-neutral by 2050, European cities will have to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy and foster significant investments in energy efficiency.

Building future-proof cities that are in harmony with nature is key to achieving this goal. BIPV technology offers a unique opportunity to achieve this harmony by transforming buildings into mini power plants that harvest and generate clean energy from the sun. BIPV elements have achieved a high level of technical maturity. There is also ample evidence for impressive design flexibility in numerous buildings all over the EU and in the UK.

Rooftop solar installations (Building Applied PV) are widely used and are competitive. However, in order to achieve sustainable goals in cities, harvesting the full potential of the building stock for renewable energy generation is required. The modular nature of BIPV adapts to almost any urban environment: roofs, façades, windows, sound barriers, roads.

According to the European Union’s Energy performance of buildings directive, buildings account for 40% of energy consumed and 37% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in European Cities. As of 2030 all new buildings must be zero-emission; new public buildings must be zero emission already by 2027.

Promoting green mobility is a key action in the European Green Deal and buildings play an important role in transforming the mobility sector by providing the necessary infrastructure for recharging electric cars and electric bicycles.

Promotion of emobility through building policy

The adoption of REPowerEU5 and the proposed increased targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency, have further increased the need to accelerate the installation of recharging infrastructure in residential as well as non-residential buildings such as homes and offices.

As various cities in Europe and the UK have the underlying urgent need to install electric vehicle (EV) charging points, the combination of BIPV modules in charging stations (i.e. parking roofs) or nearby public buildings, offers a huge still untapped potential.

In March 2023, the 32nd edition of MIPIM was held in Cannes, the world’s largest international real estate event.

23,000 delegates representing 90 countries gathered at MIPIM this year. Cities and countries showcased pioneering new opportunities to improve urban planning and advance greater sustainability and prosperity. With the decarbonisation of cities foremost on the agenda this year, MIPIM has signed the Road to Zero Alliance together with fellow real estate leaders to affirm sustainability commitments.

The Road to Zero area showcased strategies like the implementation of urban tech solutions to develop sustainable cities, increasing biodiversity in urban areas and sustainable retrofitting.

MIPIM highlighted the urgent need to consider every aspect of the urban realm in a holistic way however, the event unfortunately in this years’ edition didn’t underline the importance of solar energy integration into cities and neighbourhoods. The topic of BIPV was not mentioned in the decarbonisation strategies as an important aspect for future sustainable cities.  

Professor Jeremy Rifkin, economic and environmental thought leader, opened MIPIM with a keynote speech that addressed the importance of innovation in the transformation of the built environment towards a more sustainable model.

Professor Rifkin invited the real-estate and the finance sector to join forces to create a unique forward-looking pathway to enhance sustainability actions in the build environment and go beyond the defined international targets, to mobilise funds and develop innovative business models; working together to create a livable, resilient future in our cities in harmony with the natural environment around us. ­

There are several successful BIPV projects in the UK that demonstrate the potential of this technology. The Bloomberg European Headquarters in London by Foster and Partners is a prime example of a successful BIPV project. The building features a 9,000m2 BIPV roof, which generates enough electricity to power 500 homes. The scheme is designed to maximise natural ventilation, and integrates roof-mounted photovoltaic panels and a combined cooling heat and power system.

Another notable BIPV project in the UK is the Brent Civic Centre, which features a 1.8MW BIPV system. The system generates enough electricity to power the entire building and save up to 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. The project has resulted in a 33% reduction in carbon emissions thanks to a combination of solar shading, natural ventilation, high-performance façade, green roofs and combined cooling, as well as heating and power which utilises waste fish oil.

There is a huge, still untapped potential of photovoltaic integration into buildings and municipality structures, as well as in urban furniture such as bus stops and public transport shelters.

Innovative Shading elements on parking medium and large-scale parking lots for example, possibly in combination with charging stations for E-Vehicles, could be the basis for municipality design competitions for creative and innovative BIPV urban solutions.

Municipal authorities can actively promote BIPV and accelerated a route towards greener cities through:

  1. Converting public building stock into Plus-Energy-Buildings by using BIPV, and therefore, generate and demonstrate best practice examples.
  2. Promoting new financing schemes for private and commercial property owners, such as energy contracting and leasing models for BIPV installations. 
  3. Setting up efficient policies, grid regulations and incentives for a systematic electrification of buildings, heating and cooling, and transport.

Vision for the future

The BIPV potential in future cities is immense, offering a sustainable and efficient energy solution for urban environments. As we move towards a greener future, municipalities must begin to think to incorporate BIPV systems into innovative design concepts. Design competitions focused on integrating BIPV potential into cityscapes can serve as a catalyst for promoting creativity and imagination in the industry. These competitions for architects and designers encourage collaboration with various stakeholders, fostering a multidisciplinary approach to address the challenges of urban energy management. In the future, incorporating BIPV systems into innovative design concepts will become increasingly important for designers and architects. 

By harnessing the BIPV potential in future cities, we can pave the way for eco-friendly, energy-efficient, and aesthetically appealing urban spaces, setting the stage for a brighter and more sustainable future.