Tilted solar panels (front), create a stronger cooling efffect than panels flush with the roof. (UCSD Jacobs)
A team of researchers led by Jan Kleissl, a professor of environmental engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, determined that during the day, a building’s ceiling was 5 degrees Fahrenheit cooler under solar panels than under an exposed roof. At night, the panels help hold heat in - reducing heating costs in the winter.

Data for the study was gathered over three days in April on the roof of the Powell Structural Systems Laboratory at the Jacobs School of Engineering with a thermal infrared camera. The building is equipped with tilted solar panels and solar panels that are flush with the roof. Some portions of the roof are not covered by panels.

The panels essentially act as roof shades, said Anthony Dominguez, the graduate student lead on the project. Rather than the sun beating down onto the roof, which causes heat to be pushed through the roof and inside the ceiling of the building, photovoltaic panels take the solar beating. Then much of the heat is removed by wind blowing between the panels and the roof. The benefits are greater if there is an open gap where air can circulate between the building and the solar panel, so tilted panels provide more cooling. Also, the more efficient the solar panels, the bigger the cooling effect, said Kleissl. For the building researchers analyzed, the panels reduced the amount of heat reaching the roof by about 38 percent.

Although the measurements took place over a limited period of time, Kleissl said he is confident his team developed a model that allows them to extrapolate their findings to predict cooling effects throughout the year. For example, in winter, the panels would keep the sun from heating up the building. But at night, they would also keep in whatever heat accumulated inside. For an area like San Diego, the two effects essentially cancel each other out, Kleissl said.

“There are more efficient ways to passively cool buildings, such as reflective roof membranes,” said Kleissl. “But, if you are considering installing solar photovoltaic, depending on your roof thermal properties, you can expect a large reduction in the amount of energy you use to cool your residence or business.”

Kleissl and his team hope to develop a calculator that people could use to predict the cooling effect on their own roof and in their own climate-specific area. To further increase the accuracy of their models, researchers also could compare two climate-controlled, identical buildings in the same neighborhood, one with solar panels, the other without.

(UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering)