Purpose: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is facing a rapid growth in energy demand mainly because of factors like burgeoning population, economic growth, modernization and infrastructure development. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2017 the power consumption has increased from 120 to 315 TWh. The building sector has an important role in this respect as it accounts for around 80 percent of the total electricity consumption. The situation is imposing significant energy, environmental and economic challenges for the country. To tackle these problems and curtail its dependence on oil-based energy infrastructure, KSA is aiming to develop 9.5 GW of renewable energy projects by 2030. The campus of the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) has been considered as a case study. In the wake of recently announced net-metering policy, the purpose of this paper is to investigate the prospects of rooftop application of PV in buildings. ArcGIS and PVsyst software have been used to determine the rooftop area and undertake PV system modeling respectively. Performance of PV system has been investigated for both horizontal and tilted installations. The study also investigates the economic feasibility of the PV application with the help of various economic parameters such as benefit cost ratio, simple payback period (SPP) and equity payback periods. An environmental analysis has also been carried out with the help of RETScreen software to determine the savings in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of PV system. Design/methodology/approach: This study examines the buildings of the university campus for utilizable rooftop areas for PV application. Various types of structural, architectural and utilities-related features affecting the use of building roofs for PV have been investigated to determine the corrected area. To optimize the performance of the PV system as well as space utilization, modeling has been carried out for both horizontal and tilted applications of panels. Detailed economic and environmental assessments of the rooftop PV systems have also been investigated in detail. Modern software tools such as PVsyst, ArcGIS and RETScreen have also been used for system design calculations. Findings: Saudi Arabia is embarking on a massive solar energy program as it plans to have over 200 GW of installed capacity by 2030. With solar energy being the most abundant of the available renewable resource for the country, PV is going to be one of the main technologies in achieving the set targets. The country has, however, unlike global trends, traditionally overlooked the small-scale and building-related application of solar PV, focusing mainly on larger projects. This study explores the prospects of utilization of solar PV on building roofs. Building rooftops are constrained in terms of PV application owing to wide ranging obstacles that can be classified into five types – structural, services, accessibility, maintenance and others. The total building rooftop area in the study zone, calculated through ArcGIS has been found to be 857,408 m 2 of which 352,244 m 2 is being used as car parking and hence is not available for PV application. The available roof area, 505,165 m 2 is further hampered by construction and utilities related features including staircases, HVAC systems, skylights, water tanks and satellite dish antennas. Taking into account the relevant obstructive features, the net rooftop area covered by PV panels has been found to be in the range 25–41 percent depending upon the building typology, with residential buildings offering the least. To optimize both the system efficiency and space utilization, PV modeling has been carried out with the help of PVsyst software for both the tilted and horizontal installations. In terms of output, PV panels with tilt angle of 24° have been found to be 9 percent more efficient compared to the horizontally installed ones. Modeling results provide a net annual output 37,750 and 46,050 MWh from 21.44 and 28.51 MW of tilted and horizontal application of PV panels, sufficient to respectively meet 16 and 20 percent of the total campus electricity requirements. Findings of the economic analysis reveal the average SPP for horizontal and tilted applications of the PV to be 9.2 and 8.4 years, respectively. The benefit cost ratio for different types of buildings for horizontal and tilted application has been found to be ranging between 0.89 and 2.08 and 0.83 and 2.15, respectively. As electricity tariff in Saudi Arabia has been increased this year by as much as 45 percent and there are plans to remove $54bn of subsidy by 2020, the cost effectiveness of PV systems will be greatly helped. Application of PV in buildings can significantly improve their environmental performance as the findings of this study reveal that the annual greenhouse gas emission in the KFUPM campus can be reduced by as much as 40,199 tons carbon dioxide equivalent. Originality/value: The PV application on building roof especially from economic perspective is an area which has not been addressed thus far. Khan et al. (2017) studied the power generation potential for PV application on residential buildings in KSA. Asif (2016) also investigated power output potential of PV system in different types of buildings. Dehwas et al. (2018) adopted a detailed approach to determine utilizability of PV on residential building roofs. None of these studies have covered the economics of PV systems. This study attempts to address the gap and contribute to the scholarship on the subject. It targets to determine the power output from different types of building in an urban environment by taking into account building roof conditions. It also provides detailed economic assessment of PV systems. Subsequent environmental savings are also calculated. © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited.