MELBOURNE, AAP – When Rebecca Yang began looking into solar building materials about 10 years ago, she was worried people would laugh at her.

“I thought it would be great but I was working by myself,” she told AAP.

Professor Yang was captivated by the idea construction products could be designed to actually produce energy but no-one in Australia was really talking about it, she says.

Over the past decade things have changed and there are now windows, skylights, facades, cladding and roofing products that can harvest the sun’s energy while also replacing traditional building materials.

Overseas, FKI tower in Seoul is clad with moving panels that follow the sun’s rays and Chicago’s Willis tower has retrofitted PV glass.

Prof Yang now runs RMIT’s Solar Energy Application Lab, with about 20 researchers, and represents Australia on building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) at the International Energy Agency.

She keeps a database of more than 300 BIPV products – transparent PV windows that can be coloured or printed on, cladding that can be molded to specific shapes and PV roof tiles that click into place.

There are many unknowns – it’s hard to say what the energy-producing potential of a BIPV building might be or to estimate what it could mean for entire cities.

“We don’t know what the energy potential of BIPV actually is in Australia,” she said.

And although these products are used overseas, Australia is lagging behind Europe and China, despite being a world leader in rooftop solar adoption, Prof Yang says.

There are only about 20 non-domestic BIPV buildings in Australia and no figures on the number of BIPV homes.

Part of the reason is many BIPV products are manufactured and safety certified overseas, and there’s no testing to show they comply with Australian standards.

BIPV also finds itself wedged between two industries – renewable energy and construction – that often don’t see eye to eye.

Fire safety is also a “critical issue” for BIPV products in a industry scarred by flammable cladding scandals, although Prof Yang says there are design solutions that mitigate the risk.

Last week she won funding from the Victorian Building Authority to look into BIPV fire risk and compare overseas certifications with Australian standards.

The RMIT lab is also hoping for government funding to test various products to see if they can be used locally.

Rapid gains in BIPV efficiency means building materials that make their own energy could be widespread within a few years.

“I think it is the right time, we are all thinking about how to use it,” Prof Yang said.