innovation

Find the solar panel: energy-generating façade cladding

22 March 2019 • 3 min reading time

How can we make solar panels so visually attractive and versatile that architects and other designers will want to start using them on a large scale? This was the question that ECN part of TNO and representatives of the Dutch creative industry asked one another about five years ago. In the wake of a project in the ECN Ideation Challenge and the creation of the Dutch Solar Design consortium, that led to the launch of Solar Visuals last October. This start-up can tailor the appearance of solar panels, creating any design its customers might require.

Care to know more?

Want to know more about Solar Visuals or about the Dutch Solar Design research consortium? If so, please contact Wim Sinke.

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When you think about solar panels, what do you see in your mind’s eye? There’s a good chance you’ll have a mental image of a dark blue rectangle in an aluminium frame. But if Solar Visuals has anything to say about it, that’s soon going to change. This start-up has the in-house expertise and technology required to produce solar panels featuring integrated, customised images. The choices are legion, ranging from abstract patterns to realistic brick motifs.

Solutions that are both attractive and smart

The print does not cover the entire surface of the solar panel. That would be disastrous in terms of efficiency. In recent years, however, Dutch Solar Design (a consortium made up of six organizations) has developed a solution that is both attractive and smart. In short, this involves printing a special grid on the front of the solar panel. This completely changes the panel’s appearance while, at the same time, allowing sufficient light through to maintain high electricity yields.

“We can provide a wide range of patterns while still achieving yields of around 80 percent, compared to ordinary solar panels”

Huge potential

“Prints like these will, of course, have an impact on the yield,” says Wim Sinke, Principal Scientist Solar Energy at ECN part of TNO. “But, by combining a grid-based design with the latest printing technology, the consortium has succeeded in developing a product that delivers a strategic balance between power generation and visual quality. This enables you to create a wide range of patterns while still achieving yields of around 80 percent, compared to ordinary solar panels. That is considerably better than you might expect, based on the area covered by the print. And, of course, this does allow you to create solar panels featuring almost any design you could possibly want. This means you can now generate solar energy in places where traditional panels would automatically have been excluded, due to their unattractive appearance. One example that springs to mind is the façade of an office building. Or they could be installed on other structures, even out in the countryside. The potential is truly staggering.”

“Solar energy is entering a new phase. For many years, the focus was on cost and yield, but appearance is also a consideration”

New phase

“Infrastructure projects, too, have great potential in this regard”, he adds. “For instance, we could create noise screens from solar panels whose appearance is entirely in keeping with the surroundings. In that sense, we have really entered a new phase in terms of solar energy. For many years, the sole focus was the cost and the yield, but appearance is also a consideration. My motto is: from cutting costs to enhancing value. And we now have a great solution for that, one that is well suited to the wishes of architects, engineers and developers. From now on, they will have access to solar panels whose appearance (plus their size and shape, if required) is perfectly suited to the requirements of specific projects.

Launched during the Dutch Design Week

As stated, this has all resulted from a partnership of six different organizations. ECN part of TNO’s partners in the Dutch Solar Design PV research consortium are UNStudio (an architectural firm), TS Visuals (a print specialist), Design Innovation Group (a creative strategy consultancy), Aldowa (a specialist in façade cladding) and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. The enormous interest shown by market players, coupled with numerous requests for demos, prompted three of these organizations to set up Solar Visuals, the start-up that was launched during the Dutch Design Week last October.

“A section of the façade will be covered in solar panels that the company will use to tell a pictorial story”

Energy-generating eye-catcher

Contracts for the first demo projects have already been signed. One involves a major international company, which has fascinating plans for its own building. “A section of the façade will be covered in solar panels, and that company will use these to tell a pictorial story”, says Dr Sinke. “That will be a real eye-catcher.”

Contribution to climate targets

To date, the generation of solar energy has primarily been restricted to roofs and open fields. From now on, however, it will be possible to cover vertical surfaces in the built environment – and many other places – with huge numbers of solar panels. Thus, Solar Visuals’ specially designed solar panels can play a big part in achieving the climate targets. In short, it’s time to fundamentally change our view of solar panels.

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