The next generation of solar panels will bear little resemblance to their predecessors, at least on the outside. Companies like SRS Energy, Kyocera and Suntech Power are working with building suppliers on alternatives to clunky solar panels that will satisfy the demands of picky property owners, creating products like solar roofing tiles that blend in with the traditional clay versions found on many Southern California homes.

Aesthetics have long been a complaint of homeowners who were interested in switching to renewable power, but were unhappy with the looks of conventional solar panels. Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are solar installations that also serve as functional building materials including roofing, shading systems and window glazing. Today’s versions still stand out, but advancing technology like thin-film copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) could offer nearly invisible solar coverage.

BIPV is still in its very early stages and remains a small percentage of the solar energy market, but there’s a good chance that increased demand for cheaper energy in the coming years will bring this technology into high end communities around the world.

Lawrence Gasman, principal analyst at market research firm NanoMarkets, believes that BIPV will take off when construction picks back up again and people come face-to-face with rising energy costs.

"When the numbers really begin to add up, it pushes people to be innovative," he says. "The sun will never start charging for its service."