As Nevada County residents continue their quest for self-sustainability, Sun Energy Engineering Co. of Grass Valley has found a new way to harness solar energy - solar shingles.
Solar panels and shingles use the same photovoltaic technology to convert sunlight into electricity, but according to Ron Gangemi, owner of Sun Energy Engineering, shingles have some significant advantages.
For one thing, "You can walk on them," said Gangemi, only half-joking. The shingles he invented can be used instead of ordinary roofing materials or placed over an existing roof. They can carry a 10-pound snow load, resist fire, and meet construction guidelines for a top-quality roof.
Put another way, solar panels are mounted on top of a roof; solar shingles become part of the roof, Gangemi explained.
Passing the test
In the solar industry, Sun Energy's shingles are known as building-integrated photovoltaic products, or BIPV. Rather than installing solar collectors on a building, Gangemi's materials become part of the building itself.
Sun Energy Shingles have been tested by Underwriters Laboratories and the California Public Utilities Commission to make sure they perform to strict specifications.
One test involved a large blowtorch blasting at a shingle system for 15 straight minutes. While the polymer shingles did not come out unscathed, they did not catch fire, and they did not burn through.
When the sun goes down, BIPV products face the same problem regular solar panels do: They only work in daylight, noted Bill Barnickol, an electrical engineer who consults and subcontracts to Sun Energy.
Although Sun Energy can put together an off-the-grid building by using batteries, generators or both, Barnickol recommended "net metering:" Hook up to the grid, sell excess electricity to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. by day, and "use PG&E as your battery" at night.
With a well-designed system, you should see a net profit, said Barnickol.
Of course, Barnickol conceded it's not the perfect solution. If PG&E loses power, at night, "there goes your battery."
To be fabless or not to be
Gangemi described Sun Energy Engineering as a design and testing company. In high-tech parlance, Sun Energy is "fabless," or fabrication-less; components of Gangemi's shingles are made off-shore and assembled in Union City, Calif.
"Our goal is to get them manufactured in the U.S.," Gangemi said. "Maybe we could hire a bunch of people in Nevada County," he smiled.
Perhaps when the economy improves.
Yet Gangemi has mixed feelings about becoming a manufacturing company. By being "fabless," he is able to move and adapt faster than big companies with enormous investments in manufacturing.
That's why his shingles are already on the market, while a major corporate competitor is still gearing up for production - despite massive government investment, he grinned.
Gangemi does intend to expand his company and take on a few associates, including Barnickol.
Sometime next year, Sun Energy Engineering Co. is going to take the next step and incorporate as BIPV Inc., Gangemi announced.
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer based in Nevada City. For comments on this article,
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