Will Industry Soak Up the Sun?

John G. Swanson
May 1, 2008
COLUMN : Opening Remarks

Everybody loves the idea of solar power-and the idea is certainly not new. It's never generated much electricity within the window and door business, however. In 20-plus years in the industry, I can count the number of times solar energy has come up in conversation with window and door executives on one hand.

There's good reason. We're a practical bunch. We know solar power-photovoltaic technology in particular-has a way to go before it will become a real cost-effective energy alternative. Niche applications, committed environmental buyers and tax incentives create some sales, but solar products are not yet mainstream enough for many companies in our industry to pursue.

A couple of recent developments suggest to me the time may be getting closer. The recent International Builders' Show in February saw the first move of a major fenestration product manufacturer in North America into the solar market. Velux-America introduced a solar water heating system that its parent company based in Denmark has been selling in Europe for years.

"Solar water heating is another opportunity for individual homeowners to support the green movement in our country while realizing benefits now and for years to come," according to Tim Miller, Velux America president. Each solar water heating system installed in the U.S., he notes, can help to reduce the nation's reliance on fossil fuels while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the fact that its rooftop collectors can integrate with its roof windows, the product line extension seems like a natural fit for Velux. The company also makes the point that solar water heating has a much lower system and installation cost than solar photovoltaic technology. 

The second reason I think more players in the window and door industry might be looking at solar products is the result of a recent poll we did in WDweekly. In reporting on fensterbau, I noted that when attending, I'm always keen to see what the next European import into our market may be. Asking readers what they expected to come across the Atlantic next, solar products were the clear-cut winner. Close to 70 percent of respondents suggested solar technology would be the next big European import. Electronic hardware, at 18 percent, was the only other significant vote-getter. 

I was somewhat surprised by the results. Perhaps it's the momentum of the green building movement, but it could also be a sign that the practical business people in our industry are starting to see some possibilities for solar power. It may be thanks to advancements in the technology or simply the rising costs of petroleum and other energy sources, but more people are saying it's time to take a closer look at solar.

Speaking of fensterbau, there were definitely some photovoltaic products on display at that event. It wasn't an overwhelming number, however, and one of the companies showing those products was actually the European unit of Kawneer, the manufacturer of commercial and architectural fenestration products based here in the U.S. The displays made it evident that marrying solar technology and fenestration is probably going to be easier in the commercial market than in the residential business-until someone develops a clear photovoltaic collector, at least. SchŸco's booth showed one alternative, however, with a solar panel built into a window awning.

I'm not smart enough to predict when solar energy will start heading up a real growth curve, but I do think it will happen. The U.S. Department of Energy has set its sights on zero-energy homes becoming the norm in the not too distant future, and that is likely to require not just energy efficiency, but solar technology in many cases. Solar will create plenty of new opportunities some day. Window and door companies-whether they are manufacturers that look for ways to integrate technology into their products, or dealers that expand their lines to sell both fenestration and solar products-will be able to benefit from those opportunities if they pay attention.