SolarSkyrise on The Promise of Building Integrated Photovoltaic Technology for Unlocking the Value of Vertical Solar

Alisa Kreynes

VX News interviewed Alisa Kreynes, co-founder and Chief Development Officer of SolarSkyrise, on the promise of building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) technologies for transforming any eligible building surface into a power generating asset and how Solar Skyrise enables developers and designers to maximize the value of vertical real estate. Why: because buildings contribute roughly 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions; and with deadlines for net-zero energy targets and emissions benchmarks on the horizon, rooftop solar is insufficient to offset the carbon footprint of energy intensive tall, vertical buildings.

Why is SolarSkyise’s focus on vertical solar important for Building Owners concerned about climate goals and resiliency?

Alisa Kreynes: We live in an era of energy transition. The world is moving away from fossil fuels and switching to renewables. This also means urban energy transition and a shift in the way we plan, design, and build our cities. We have aggressive carbon goals to reach over the next decade, so the way we think about integrating renewables into building design has to change as well.

We all know that buildings represent a huge problem. Buildings are responsible for the lion's share of global greenhouse gas emissions, and unfortunately none of the large cities in the US are currently on track to meet the UN climate goals of 2050. Rooftop is a known solution, but it only works for smaller buildings. For taller buildings with large vertical footprints, small rooftop solar is insufficient and not always the best use of a rooftop—which could be used as a green space. 

Now, resilience is becoming more critical than ever, and not just for critical care facilities, but also across the real estate sector. Putting the pandemic aside, we're now preparing for the next wave of earthquakes in California which will likely cause great failures. Being able to generate power will be key, so resilience for building owners is now a top priority.

Drill down on what SolarSkyrise offers building owners re: applications and technologies.

At SolarSkyrise, we’ve developed technology to analyze the building envelopes of planned and existing buildings and look at all of the surfaces that are eligible for generating solar power. We do that by looking at the technical, economic, and environmental aspects of the building and produce a fairly quick and very accurate feasibility level study analysis of a project that’s ready to go to a developer so a decision can be made.

What we do differently than other solar analytics companies is we look at any eligible surface of the building that could be generating power. Alongside the technical aspect goes a detailed economic benefits analysis, which becomes critically important for the developer or an investor who has to make a decision on the project moving forward or not.

We also provide a service that comes along with it where we do the studies ourselves and work with architects and engineers to get them through the design process and project construction preparation. Ultimately, we have capital partners that will be bringing in the finance piece when that is desired.

What is the nature of the relationships among the construction and design community with SolarSkyrise? Who have you been working with and what are the questions, concerns, and opportunities in those collaborations?

A lot of the work we do is with architects, and clearly the design industry is an important piece in the puzzle. They are the guys who design the technologies into the projects and make them happen, so we have a number of relationships with leading architecture and planning firms.

On the construction side, I should mention the OEMs, the folks who actually make the technology. We are not attached to any of them—we are technology agnostic—but we do have relationships with the vendors, especially some of the local ones here in California that have technology that’s been deployed or about to be deployed to market.

We keep close contact with those folks for two reasons. We need to know what they’re making—because our data is based on their technology outputs—and we often times end up doing work for them in helping them model their projects. 

What are some of those technologies?

There is a wide range of architectural solar products on the market today. The building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are solar-generated technologies that range from fully transparent to opaque, which determines their generation efficiency. They replace traditional construction materials and can be applied to any part of the building including windows, façades, and skylights.  The opacity and transparency also dictate how you would use these materials. The fully-transparent PV material will replace the traditional window glass.  

Even though fully transparent PV window glass has a lower efficiency than an opaque spandrel glass, it can be used very effectively in a historic retrofit or adaptive reuse project, where you can't make any design changes to the façade. On the other end, you have the traditional PV panels that are not transparent at all and can be applied to parts of the building that you don’t really want to be looking at.

What is the application for existing buildings?

It’s really the same as new buildings, but you’d be retrofitting existing ones and—depending on what the building is how much reskinning can be done—we’d be replacing windows with PV windows and replacing portions of the façade. It’s really the same application in existing buildings—be that a retrofit or adaptive reuse—and new buildings. You’re obviously a bit more limited in terms of what you can do in projects with existing buildings that are historic landmarks with various restrictions as to what you can actually touch within the building, but we usually find a way to recommend something that makes sense.

We’re looking at an adaptive reuse project right now here in Los Angeles that is a historic building, and they’re limited to what they can do from a design standpoint. Putting glossy-looking solar panels on the façade isn’t going to be an option, so in that case we’re recommending just the windows and that becomes an effective measure for a building like that.

Locally and globally, what projects has SolarSkyrise been involved in?

So far, we’ve done a number of projects in Australia and several studies in North America, both the US and Canada.

We’re kicking off a really interesting study here in Southern California with SoCal Edison. We are going to be taking 10 of their high-load customers in their service territory and doing studies on each of the selected sites to determine how much on-site power can be produced and how much greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced.

One project that I can reference here in Los Angeles—which we weren’t involved in the design of—is a good reference point for us here in Southern California: the Netflix building on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. The Epic Tower, which was designed by Gensler Architects and features 300 BIPV modules on two of its façades is an important industry milestone as it has gone through a very elaborate permitting and code revision process to approve PV on the façades. The process is now in place, and it will allow for future projects to move forward.

This example really shows how the technology can be applied at scale, how it can work within a large building, how it can integrate within the architectural design without putting a straightjacket on the design itself—which has been the case for PV panels—which is why the architects don’t particularly love them. To date, PV materials were typically not the best-looking option in terms of aesthetics.

What are other reference projects around the globe?

There are lots of different public and private sector buildings all over Western Europe, a number of them in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, but the US may be more familiar to the audience.

In New York, for example, we have the Cornell Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island with BIPV in the design. It’s built into the rooftop, and you can see it if you walk around the building. That’s a good example here in the US that was recently featured in a number of magazines. We have University of Washington that cladded their entire façade of the science building with BIPV.

Then again, coming back here to Los Angeles, we have Culver City Creative, which is a smaller project in terms of how many PVs were built into it. Portions of the façade integrate amorphous silica PVs to feature how the material can be used in architecture to generate on-site power vertically.

What typically causes potential collaborators and clients to forgo your services?

It’s new tech, and if something hasn’t been done before, you usually don’t have too many pioneers who will take on the risk of putting new technology on their balance sheet. BIPV is a fairly new technology that hasn't been widespread in the US.

The second part is that it’s very difficult to model projects and understand the technical and financial feasibility of a project that used BIPV, because it’s difficult to analyze vertical surfaces of the building. It’s hard to model them, be accurate with the data, and it hasn’t been done before we started doing it. There was a big gap in how and where you get the data that’s verified and independent, because a vendor is going to put together a very rosy-looking picture. We've seen so many scenarios where we think that the numbers were hugely inflated, and there was a bit of a snake oil salesman situation going on in the industry.

The third piece is that in order for something like this to move to scale there has to be government push. It happened with other technologies in renewable energy like offshore wind, where we started at zero, and now we’re at 10,000 megawatts on the East Coast. That happened because of a very close collaboration between government agencies and the private sector. There has to be a point where we have a good amount of information and education happening within the industry, within the planning world, within the policy making world, within the design world, and within the private sector.

Is there currently a push for BIPV in the graduate schools of architecture, design, and engineering?

It has to happen everywhere, but it’s not happening right now. We are talking to a number of graduate schools—Woodbury, SCI-Arc, and the UC—to at least get them to know and make a note of what’s offered, what’s coming to market, and what they need to integrate into their design for climate change programs. We’re seeing that every architecture school is now putting together a class on design for resilience or design for sustainability. This definitely needs to become a part of the education.

But it also has to become part of the education within the planning sector. If you go to Los Angeles City Planning right now and ask them what they know about integrating solar into building façades, they’ll say absolutely nothing. Going back to the files that were put together for the Netflix building, the city didn’t really understand what was happening, so there was a big delay with the permitting process.

When you’re talking to the planning folks, who have to sign off on the entitlements and the project, they don’t necessarily get involved with the new technologies to the extent that they need to in order to translate that for the Department of Building & Safety and the other city departments that are involved in the planning process. That is a big gap on the planning side that needs to be fixed in order for these projects to move forward. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen through every step of the decision-making process—from government to the private sector. 

How is state and local policy impacting the market where you operate?

It's great that many of the states and cities have set out aggressive net zero energy targets.  We see the market really pushing forward in California and New York, simply because of where the laws are headed with Local Law 97 in New York that’s aggressively pushing for the building stock to rethink the way they operate. There are going be penalties from 2024 onward for carbon emissions produced over their budget cap. Then, in California, we have Title 24, which is evolving to hit the same goal in terms of articulating what the penalties are going to look like and what the goals are going to look like for the real estate sector.

In terms of how it relates to our technology, we focus on bigger buildings, so we look at the building envelopes that don’t really benefit from rooftop solar systems. When you have a lot of vertical surface, you really want to optimize the areas that you have to generate power. Building surfaces are able to generate clean energy through architectural solar applications. We think there’s going to be a big push for this technology to move forward quicker. We do have some very aggressive goals to hit by 2030 in terms of reducing embodied and operational carbon in existing buildings and eliminating it in new buildings.

We see our technology as a critical first step to making that change. We really can’t continue moving forward and looking at just the energy efficiency measures and rooftop solar systems as a solution for getting these buildings to be net-zero energy or reducing their carbon footprint.

For building owners, clean energy translates into emissions offsets, increased resilience, and new revenue streams that come from energy savings and tax incentives. And of course, all of the above translates into reduced operational carbon, and in many cases, reduced embodied carbon. 

How did the company arrive at its solution and how did the product develop?

Scott Russell Our solution to this problem stems from our experience in the energy consulting field. Our team has worked in about 70 countries in total, doing everything from large-scale renewables to other types of energy and building projects. What we found was that the key nonstarter for many of these projects was having simple, cost effective, and accurate data to understand whether a specific technology or approach made economic sense to study further. 

As we developed in this space, we saw the same thing happen. The cost, time, and requirements to do an analysis of vertical surfaces and understand if it makes sense for the application of building integrated or architectural solar projects was simple cost prohibitive. If we're looking at $30,000+ to look at a building to then realize it's not a good candidate, it makes it out of reach for the end user and owner. 

We approach this problem as saying, "We believe there is a massive opportunity here to utilize this space in a more effective way, to reduce carbon emissions and do something impactful and good for the environment." The key part of what our software does is put it into real dollars and cents terms for the end users. Is there feasible return on investment? Does this create a new revenue stream? What does that look like? And, to provide that data at a pre-screening stage in a very quick, cost effective, and accurate way to understand whether it's worth studying in full.

Our solution is a study as a service platform, so we built some core technology around how to—in physical space—understand the potential of all façades the buildings, but the sexy part of what we're doing is the vertical space. We can work with design files for non-existent buildings during the concept design phase, or existing assets for adaptive reuse or just run-of-the-mill existing buildings. What we produce from this platform is a simple, easy to understand report so that a user can see the key points and data, and in a way they can really digest really easily. For our users—which are architects and engineering firms—there's simple dashboard to create projects, review analyses, and present information to the end user. 

We also realized in spending a lot of time talking with both our clients at the architect and engineering firms and the end clients—the owner and developer—is that we have to provide a solution beyond just the initial analysis. That's where we built a lot of our core technology, but providing engineering and project support in connection to finance were also really important things. As part of offer, beyond the initial solar score study we can provide the engineering and project support—project engineering services, contract support, owners engineer services, and especially connection to industry partners. We can truly take a project from cradle to grave.

What we also heard from the owner/developer group is that they may have a building they're planning to build that has great potential for using vertical surfaces for architectural solar, or an existing reclad or adaptive reuse project that has great financials, but for whatever reason that end user may not want to finance it or be able to take advantage of the tax benefits. For us, because we can access that data and understand if they have a feasible project, providing that connection to third party financing and some really innovative new financing solutions is a part of our model as well.

Our customers can then take this report to an end user say, "You have a great project, and even if you can't finance it or don’t have an appetite to finance it, we can provide that connection to firms that are interested in that." We take a holistic look at how we'd go from initial analysis—using our technology and our platform—through getting a project done and supporting it every step of the way.

Alisa: Will the pandemic, and resulting apprehension for urban density and social distancing , impact the market for vertical solar?

In the context of cities, density, and buildings, we actually think that COVID-19 won’t necessarily impact how we design our cities in terms of bigger, taller buildings because many cities—like New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Hong Kong—land is expensive and you can only build vertically, so we’ll continue to work with the infrastructure we have. In most large urban centers, over 65 percent of real estate density is vertical and will continue to develop as vertical. That's why we see it as critical to unlock the potential of the vertical space and put it to use.

The way we use our built environment will change. The way we plan our cities and traffic around cities will definitely have to change. We’re going to see some positive change after COVID, and we hope this accelerates the efforts in the clean tech sector and climate change measures.

As much on the street there is about how COVID will impact the vertical density of cities and overall density of urban centers; we actually don’t think that’s going to have a long-term effect. There’s definitely going to be some redesign in terms of our approach to green space and the environmental impacts of development. As crazy as it is to say, this is going to help our industry. We don’t see that there’s going to be a significant reduction in the heights of buildings or overall density, but there’s going to be a change in the way we operate these buildings and the environment.

I'd also like to point out that the OEMs—the companies that make solar products—are now starting to evolve and develop locally in the US. In the past, architectural solar products used to come from Europe, but now we have a number of companies in California—like Walters & Wolf and NextEnergy—designing and manufacturing locally. As you start to look at sourcing of this technology and consider the embodied carbon factors, it is important to keep in mind that we have a local supply chain here in the US and in California. 

Lastly, why was the company started in Canada?

My co-founders are both Canadian, and we worked for a Canadian utility called Manitoba Hydro, which did a lot of innovative renewable energy consulting work. Our CTO used to manage Manitoba Hydro International, and he was the one behind a lot of the cool stuff we did. He bounced around the world doing all sorts of cool power consulting projects, then he came to look at the BVIPs as the next big thing. 

We have an office in Winnipeg and an office in Los Angeles at the LACI La Kretz campus. People ask why Winnipeg, but a lot of the engineering talent actually comes out of Manitoba, simply because the whole province was built on energy and power engineering.

We have a small team of about 10 people, and our software engineering and architecture folks now come from all walks of life but all have some knowledge of energy and power engineering. We're growing fast, and hopefully here in California as well.

“At SolarSkyrise, we’ve developed technology to analyze the building envelopes of planned and existing buildings and look at all of the surfaces that are eligible for generating solar power.. and for transforming any eligible building surface into a power generating asset.” —Alisa Kreynes