A fascinating array of new, green building materials are emerging. And some of them go beyond saving energy – they harness it. These developments are being sped up by requirements in Japan and the European Union that all new houses and public buildings be zero energy (or nearly so) by 2020, which is forcing some creative thinking on ways to do more with the same physical footprint.

One massively popular add-on in recent years has been solar photovoltaics. Engineers are now taking them a step further, working to integrate them into traditional architecture. A clear way to do that is by integrating them into windows, creating so-called “solar windows.”

The Dawn of Solar Windows, published on IEEE Spectrum, details the research being done to turn buildings’ glass panels into photovoltaic modules. Says the author, Andy Extance, “Such windows would unobtrusively generate power for the building while allowing its occupants to peer out onto the street, enjoy natural light, or watch clouds pass overhead.”

While not as efficient as solar panels (since they need to be at least partially transparent), their ability to integrate with building facades would make it easy to create a large network of these small photovoltaic sources. The scale of the system stands to harness a significant amount of energy.

Of course, one complication is that adding distributed sources of renewable energy to the grid has disrupted traditional utilities over the past few years.Open questions remain about the capabilities of the existing grid, as well as the future of utilities themselves.

A new report analyzed by our colleagues at IEEE Spectrum concludes that utility companies have two options if they want to return to growth: “One is to move toward electric infrastructure as a platform for new applications that other companies can develop, such as renewable energy storage. The other direction is for the utility itself to expand into new growth areas like electric vehicle charging stations.”

For the latest developments in energy generation, storage and usage, stay tuned to the green technology sections of IEEE Transmitter and IEEE Spectrum.

Written by IEEE on March 9, 2018