The Evolution of Solar Roofing – From Panels to Tiles

Solar panels – or photovoltaic cells – have become an ever more common sight across the roofs of residential properties throughout the UK over the past decade. Driven either by a conscious effort towards renewable energy sources or more economic factors such as Governmental grants and feed-in tariffs, home owners have made the move towards utilising their roof for energy supplies in increasing numbers.

Nevertheless, from an aesthetic perspective, a roof covered in solar panels remains something of a contentious issue. While there are plenty who have no objection whatsoever, for others the panels are deemed unsightly; or not fitting in with the aesthetic of the street, or suburb or surrounding houses.

Large, raised solar panels on a roof are often deemed as ‘not fitting in’ with the appearance of neighbouring houses. Put simply, the roof looks a lot different to the slate covered house next door. Indeed, this can even cause an issue in relation to planning applications. According to the Government site, planning portal.

“Equipment on a building should be sited, so far as is practicable, to minimise the effect on the external appearance of the building and the amenity of the area."

Of course, things progress and, given the environmental (and long-term economic) advantages of solar energy, developing new solutions for roof top solar energy through tiles and panels that are unobtrusive and blend into the surroundings is a key area of innovation for next generation solar units.

With that in mind, we thought we might take a brief look at the evolution and history of the solar panel – through to the new tiles of today and beyond.

Solar is NOT a new technology

solar panel being installed in 1955.

A solar panel being installed on a telephone pole in 1955.

The first thing to mention is that while solar panels on a house roof may be a vision of the past two decades or so, the idea of using the power of the sun as a means of generating energy is by no means a modern concept.

There’s evidence that the Romans and Greeks were utilising the sun for heat retention from as far back as the third century BC, albeit in a more passive fashion – positioning windows appropriately to get the most sunlight into a property for instance.

Even so, the concept of a solar panel itself has still be in existence for over two hundred years. Swiss scientist called Horace-Benedict de Saussure is credited with the first solar cell in 1767 with his construction of an insulated box comprised of 3 glass layers – able to generate up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit from the sun’s rays.

The Birth of Photovoltaic

Solar panels as we have come to commonly use them today are based upon the photovoltaic effect. Essentially this was the discovery, in the early 1800s no less, that the sun’s light could be conducted through appropriate materials to generate electricity. This watershed moment would be foundation upon which later innovation in solar energy would be based.

Solar Panels as an alternative to fossil fuels

The idea that the world required alternatives to fossil fuels – because of both depleting levels and new studies into the effects of global warming – first came to wider prominence in the 1950s. Investigations into ways of generating energy from renewable sources began in earnest, leading to the creation of the first photovoltaic cell that could be implemented for practical use, by the Bell Laboratories in 1954.

In the decades that followed, further innovation was aimed at created PV cells that could be utilised on a commercial scale, although they met with little success through the 60s and 70s, overall inefficiencies making them cost prohibitive.

Efficiency improvements through the 1980s and into the 1990s led to the increased commercialised use of solar panels, with particular focus in Australia and the Western regions of the USA.

By the end of the century the idea of global warming and the need to move away from fossil fuels towards the alternative, sustainable energy supplies, was very much high on the agenda across the world.

At the forefront of this new focus, was solar power.

The Rise of Domestic Roof Based Panels

Workmen installing solar panels on a UK roof.

Into the new century and initiatives to make solar energy accessible to domestic homes were coming into effect in California, Germany and other European nations. By 2006 UK retailers were offering PV Solar panels that could be installed on domestic roof tops. Government grant schemes were introduced to incentivise UK home owners to install panels onto some, or all of their roof, with the idea that the panels will reduce energy costs in the medium term and even generate a profit over longer terms (typically 20 years).

Panel design has changed in the years since domestic roof solar energy first came to the fore. Early panels were large, heavy looking panels which were raised from the roof structure and often conspicuously out of place in comparison to surrounding properties.

Integrated Panels and Tiles

Intergrated Solar Profile Tiles

Bringing the story up to date and innovation has led to the continued development of solar panels that can be integrated into the property to provide a more seamless and natural look. On existing homes, these panels can be fitted to be streamlined and flush to the roof, structure – as you might install a roof window / skylight.

Progressing beyond panels altogether however, and a particular favourite option for new builds (where eco-designs and the incorporation of sustainable and renewable technology is more frequently being a standard requirement) and we have the emergence of solar tiles.

Also referred to as solar shingles or solar slates, the latest domestic solar innovations are roof tiles that are installed in the same overlapping method as standard tiles, integrated into the roof among the normal tiles in such a way as the casual observer would barely raise an eyebrow at.

Solar technology it seems, is here to stay, becoming standard in new homes built in the UK in years to come, and ever more frequently added to the roof of existing homes around the country. And, as technology progresses, so we move away from obtrusive panels towards the attractively discreet solar roof tiles and integrated panels – which is likely to encourage more households to adopt the renewable energy without fear of affecting the appearance of their roof.

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