Building the Case for Solar Power Integration

The integration of on-site solar power generation into the design of buildings is gaining traction as an economically viable solution for energy efficiency.

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WSP USA is guiding clients to explore the potential of incorporating an integrated photovoltaics (PV) system into their new building projects before construction begins.

“Ten, five, even two years ago, integrated solar energy was not seen as a market-ready solution, especially for buildings,” said Claire McKenna, high-performance building specialist for WSP. “It was a special niche market, primarily driven by government regulations or the interest of the owners, but not for economic reasons.”

Since joining WSP three years ago, McKenna has been introducing clients to integrated PV – outlining the value they will gain by planning for a solar energy system at the design stage, rather than as an add-on to a project during construction, or after a project has been completed.

Initially, most clients she worked with were choosing integrated PV in order to meet government environmental regulations for their projects. Today, with a rapid decrease in costs over the past decade, there is an economic motivation.

“With the cost of photovoltaic energy systems coming down 50 percent over the past 10 years, we’re starting to see environmental policy and economic interests converge,” she said.

Seamless Design

McKenna is based in the San Francisco office, consulting on integrated PV projects across North America, producing a wide range of options that maximize energy efficiency in a building, from “daylighting” strategies that reduce daytime electricity use, to full-scope photovoltaic design.

“When we can determine early in the design process how much energy will be produced when solar is interrelated with the building design, it creates a lot more opportunities for the end owner or developer,” she said. “If they wait until the building is completed, options are limited and integration is more difficult and costly.”

One of the challenges with integrated PV is working against preconceived notions regarding solar panels—the cost, the capability, and the appearance. “It can be like swimming upstream to convince an architect to push the envelope for high-performance design elements that are a little bit out of the ordinary,” McKenna said. “One of my responsibilities is to share facts and information with architects about where solar has come from and where it is now.”

When applied to meet this potential, McKenna said a building integrated PV system provides a distinctive aesthetic while meeting high-performance energy goals.

“Architects are the stewards of the design,” she added. “So it is important to get them thinking of solar in a new way; as a more affordable, cost-competitive, efficient solution.”

WSP has the capability to design and build many different integrated systems to suit clients’ needs.

“We have the ability to work with our own MEP [mechanical, electrical, plumbing] engineers on a project and get the most out of a system,” she said. “We are plugged in with our electrical team, and it certainly helps when you work in the same office of those MEP engineers. It enables us to offer a seamless design for a building.”


The De Anza College Media and Learning Center in Cupertino, California was an early adopter of integrated photovoltaics as a way to generate electricity from solar energy.

Integrated Solar Pioneers

McKenna is currently working on several integrated PV projects for the firm, including the Bechtel Residence at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) in Pasadena, California, and the Ocean Education Center for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“Clients like CalTech and the Ocean Education Center have set their own sustainability goals,” she said. “They work that into their programs, often with a goal of achieving net zero energy usage, where the building is producing the same about of renewable energy that it uses on an annual basis.”

In some areas, buildings with renewable energy systems that exceed their needs are permitted to sell it to the utility company in a practice known as net metering.

“Owning your own energy source will continue to become more beneficial to building owners in the future and make it less exposed to market prices,” McKenna said.

She is thrilled to work for a firm that is a “pioneer” in the integrated PV industry.

“This is the future for the technology,” McKenna said. “Architects and building owners are beginning to see it as a competitive way to deliver low energy buildings. It is an opportunity that should be on the table during the design stage, and as it becomes more plan-driven rather than just policy-driven, integrated PV will expand into more markets.

“I love the opportunity to spread the word about solar energy and implementing it on buildings,” she added. “I love the variety and scale of my projects. It keeps me on my toes. It’s why I come to work every day.”

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