Since winning the bid in 2001 for the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer, China has sought to make over its image of heavyweight industrial pollutant to one of environmentally responsible, clean energy supporter. Beijing, a city with a population of 17.4 million, has implemented 20 costly projects over the past three years to clean up the smog and improve air quality, from installing desulfurization systems at most power generating units to restricting an estimated 3.5 million vehicles from driving on the city’s roads on certain days.

The nation that builds about two coal plants per week and already leads the world in carbon emissions by some estimates is so committed to presenting a sustainable face to the rest of the world this August, it has declared it will conduct a “Green Olympics”—promising zero net emissions associated with hosting the games. To some extent this campaign has paid off: China’s drive to “strengthen public awareness of environmental protection and promote the development and application of new technologies” has yielded some enviable results.

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A team of engineers, designers, and architects recently installed GreenPix, a zero-carbon LED display and photovoltaic system integrated into a glass curtain wall in Beijing, just in time for the summer Olympics. Courtesy: Simone Giostra & Partners Architects

Giostra and British engineering firm Arup developed a new technology with the support of leading German PV manufacturers Schueco and SunWays to laminate polycrystalline PV cells in a glass curtain wall. The cells are placed with changing density on the entire building’s skin. The density pattern increases the building’s performance, allowing natural light to permeate the building envelope when required inside while at the same time reducing heat gain and transforming excessive solar radiation into energy for the media wall.Architect Simone Giostra anticipates that GreenPix’s display, composed of 2,292 color (RGB) LED light points—comparable to a 24,000-square-foot monitor for dynamic content display—will provide Beijing with a unique communication surface devoted to unprecedented forms of digital art.

Though this is likely, the project is more significant because it promotes an uncompromised integration of sustainable technology in architecture. It is a successful—” radical,” even, as Giostra calls it—example of an emerging solar energy technology worldwide: building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). Basically defined, BIPVs are PV materials serving as exterior structural building components, such as roofing, façade, or skylights. These materials can be installed during actual construction or retrofitted, and they are used typically for on-grid application rather than off-grid microgeneration.

Because the technology provides versatility and life-cycle savings, the BIPV sector is growing in popularity. Last year it had a worldwide growth spurt of 33% compared to 2006, says UK growth partnership company Frost & Sullivan. BIPV has also benefited from overwhelming political support in Europe, where the EU endorses the technology. Its major challenge continues to be affordability; in Europe, even with the help of EU subsidies and tax incentives that have lowered prices, it continues to be expensive. When cost is not an issue, the technology becomes an architectural component.The OpTIC project in Wales and StillwellAvenue Station in New York are modern examples of BIPV—although neither is as grand as the GreenPix in Beijing.

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