June 15, 2020 - From the June, 2020 issue

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

TPR 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. TPR also excerpts from a March 20 AIA California Climate Action Partner Webinar, where Kreynes elaborates on how her firm’s analytics technology and platform enables developers and designers to maximize the value of vertical real estate. Why: because buildings contribute to 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 vertical buildings.


Alisa Kreynes

“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

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 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 grid failures. Being able to self-generate power will be key, so resilience for building owners is now a top priority.

Drill down on what SolarSkyrise offers building owners in terms of 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 pre-visibility 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 that 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 an expert service that comes along with it where we do the studies ourselves and work with architects, engineers, and investors 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?

For the past year, we have been focused on building relationships with leading architecture and planning firms. Clearly, the design industry is an important piece in the puzzle, as it stands behind conceptualizing projects and integrating new technologies into buildings before they get built.

For the design community, the biggest challenge is hitting their NZE design targets, while also meeting their developers’ requirements. Retrofits and adaptive reuse projects are always going to be more tricky than the new builds, so finding an optimal solution for these types of projects is going to require some out-of-the-box thinking.

On the construction side, we work with the OEMs, the folks who actually make the technology. We are not associated with any of them—we are technology agnostic—but we do have relationships with the technology vendors, including several California-based BIPV companies who are about to go commercial with some exciting new products.

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. 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 transparent PV material will replace the traditional window glass, while opaque modules could be integrated in any portion of a façade.

Although transparent PV window glass has a lower generation efficiency than an opaque panel, 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.

The important message here is that we are now overcoming one of the hardest barriers in the acceptance of photovoltaics as an everyday design consideration, and dismantling outdated understanding of PV technology. Historically, architects considered PV to be a purely mechanical component to the building, something that should be limited to the roof and disguised, as it is aesthetically an eyesore.

Modern BIPV products prove that PV no longer needs to be a straight-jacket for architects. These are flexible design materials that can come in nearly any shape and color and are very lightweight compared to their predecessors.

It’s not dissimilar to an electric car. Just think of a first EV model and a Tesla!

What is the application for existing buildings?

The application is the same except you are looking at retrofitting an existing building versus designing a new one.  Contingent on how much reskinning can be done, we’d be replacing windows with PV windows and replacing portions of the façade. As I pointed out earlier, retrofits and adaptive reuse projects are always going to be more tricky than the new developments, so working closely with the design community to find the right solution is important.

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

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

We are about to kick off a really interesting study in Southern California with Southern California Edison. We will conduct studies for 10 of SCE’s high-load customers to determine how much on-site power can be produced and how many GHGs can be offset. That will help guide their DER strategy and provide actionable inputs into the utility’s carbon goals plan.

One project that I  like to reference is the new Netflix campus' Epic Tower on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood (pictured below). The building is a living proof of the technology, and is a major industry milestone, as it is the first large commercial building in SoCal to generate solar power directly from its facades.

The building was designed before our time, so we were not directly involved, but we like to reference it as a project to look at.

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The building is developed by Hudson Pacific and designed by Gensler Architects. It has 300 BIPV modules on two of its façades, and you can see them from the street.

It is really worth driving by or looking it up online – it’s a beauty! 

What are other reference projects around the globe?

Kirk Kapital is a famous building in Denmark many would know, as it was designed by celebrity architect Olafur Eliasson. The building has BIPV skylights. Pfizer/Genyo building in Granada, Spain, features a BIPV façade. Seneca College in Ontario, Canada, is another good example. The building has a BIPV curtain wall.

And to bring it back to the US, some additional examples here are the Cornell Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island in NY. BIPVs are integrated into the rooftop/canopy, and you can see them looking up from the main entrance.  In Los Angeles, we also have Culver City Creative, which features a small PV curtain wall.

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

It’s new technology, 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. We need more Elon Musks out there for that to change.

The second part is that permitting façade PVs with cities isn’t an easy process just yet. The Netflix project team had to go through a lengthy approvals process to get their construction permits. That’s mostly because the city planning people aren’t always up to speed on the latest technologies, and the folks that issue the entitlements aren’t the same folks that issue the building permits, and the two groups don’t always have the best communications channels.

Lastly, I will say that because of how long it usually takes to conceptualize, finance, design, and build a building, PV often becomes an afterthought. The projects that are going into permitting today were approved several years ago when the push for NZE wasn’t quite there yet. These developers don’t want to go through any changes, as that potentially sets them back. Nobody wants to go through another design review, or increase their budget, unless they are forced to do so.

I'll go back to what I said earlier – planning for BIPVs or any other on-site renewable energy technology needs to happen as early in the project concept design phase as possible.

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

Unfortunately, there is not yet, and schools really need to step up. We are talking to a number of graduate schools here—Woodbury, SCI-Arc, and the USC—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 the curriculum. We’re seeing that architecture schools are now putting together courses on design for resilience and sustainability. This definitely needs to become a mandatory part of the program.

We are are always looking to collaborate with more schools.

How are state and local policies 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 be, and what's realistic and actionable.

We believe there’s going to be a big push for BIPV technology in the US starting this year. As a nation, we have very aggressive carbon goals to achieve over the next decade, and we can’t meet these goals without changing the way we think about energy and buildings.

We see our technology as a critical first step to making that change.

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.

I believe that 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.

Lastly, why was the company started in Canada?

My co-founders are Canadian. We all met working for a Canadian utility called Manitoba Hydro International (MHI), which did a lot of innovative renewable energy consulting work in all kinds of challenging developing markets across Africa and Asia. Our CTO, Mark Mandzik used to manage MHI, and he was always the one to see the technological and market trends before they make the press. He did the same with BIPVs, and so here we are.

We have an office in Winnipeg and an office in Los Angeles at the LACI/La Kretz Innovation campus. People ask, why Winnipeg? The answer is that some of the best power engineering expertise comes from Manitoba, simply because the whole province was built on generating and selling power.

We are a small team of 10 people, and we all come from diverse backgrounds and many walks of life. We bring together world class expertise in renewable energy, planning, engineering, software development, and financial modeling. But most importantly, we are all passionate about clean energy and the impact our technology can have on the way we plan, design, and build our cities. 

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.