“In the United States solar community, there is a lot of talk about, ‘what else is there to innovate?’ As if innovation in photovoltaics is done. I’m making the case that it’s far from done,” said Dr. Gabriela Bunea, Chief Solar Innovation Officer at GAF Energy, when she was invited to give the keynote address at the 50th annual Photovoltaic Specialists Conference (PVSC) hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)

For more than a hundred years, the solar panel has remained the same—a rectangular shape with a glass front surrounded by a metal frame. According to Dr. Bunea, “innovation has been constrained by the solar panel’s form factor.” The rigid form factor and all the accessories that are required have traditionally prevented cost-effective ways to manufacture, transport, and attach panels to a roof or other mounting structures. To increase residential solar adoption, we need to think beyond the panel.

In her keynote address, titled “Beyond the Panel: What’s Next in Solar Innovation?” Dr. Bunea claimed that “we have now reached a cost point and maturity in which solar-generated energy can compete with conventional fuel.” As she put it, solar is being called “the new oil.” A key benefit of this new fuel type? Sourcing. With solar roofing, the energy is being generated in the same location where it’s consumed. Drilling and transportation costs become a thing of the past. 

However, in order to reach the scale needed to make solar the main source of energy, Dr. Bunea’s argument is that we must innovate outside the “rectangle” box; we must create consumer-friendly products, open up new use cases and complement other construction-related industries. Speed of innovation needs to be increased. At GAF Energy, Dr. Bunea believes co-locating our engineering centers with supply chain and manufacturing ensures faster cycles of learning and better customer satisfaction as a lab-to-consumer solar company.

As the Chief Solar Innovation Officer at GAF Energy, Dr. Bunea has been the driving force behind the development of Timberline Solar™, which incorporates the world’s first nailable solar shingle into traditional roofing materials and processes. Timberline Solar™ has received more than 30 design and innovation awards since its introduction in January 2022

“In addition to increased deployment,” said Dr. Bunea, “solar product innovation can play a role in expanding local manufacturing.” GAF Energy co-locates R&D and manufacturing at its California facility based on the idea that solar growth is a global phenomenon with a local solution. By locating these processes in the U.S., GAF Energy operates as a lab-to-consumer solar company. 

During her keynote address, Dr. Bunea told an audience of many of the world’s experts on PV technology about what is needed to turbocharge solar innovation; she also explained the importance of solar innovators thinking outside of the panel. Her solution: design a product that fits into existing business models and really meets consumer’s needs. Dr. Bunea and her team accomplished this when  they designed Timberline Solar™ for the roofing industry and for homeowners, and it’s what GAF Energy continues to innovate on until it achieves its vision of energy from every roof. 

Fast Company recently awarded Dr. Bunea as a finalist for Innovative Leader of the Year on their list of 2023’s Best Workplaces for Innovators. You can read more about the list here.