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Solar fabrics bring power to the people

Features, News | November 1, 2012 | By:

Commercial success for large-scale flexible solar fabrics may be just around the corner.

Fabrics that capture energy are gaining traction in the consumer marketplace. Solar backpacks, solar umbrellas, solar purses and even solar clothing can be ordered with a few mouse clicks. But what about awnings, rooftops, boat covers and other large-scale fabric applications? Installations exist, but when will that commercial marketplace start driving large-scale production?

According to Todd Dalland, co-founder and president of Pvilion, a New York City-based fabricator of solar structures, “Fabrics and fabric-based products in each of the Industrial Fabrics Association International’s (IFAI’s) market divisions will soon be generating renewable energy. IFAI will be renamed the EFAI—Electric Fabric Association International.” He is completely serious. At this point, though, no energy-generating fabric is ready for large-scale commercial success. But flexible solar fabrics are close—maybe not close enough to jump out of the laboratory into the retail marketplace, but close to the point at which lots of customers will be buying it, despite the need for continuing development and efficiencies.

A matter of energy

Flexible solar cells come in rolls that can be cut and attached with lamination and other techniques to just about any fabric. Any fabric configuration, then—including permanent and semi-permanent structures—can be a mini-power plant without ugly, bulky rectangular solar panels on display. And that’s why the leadership team at Pvilion, along with those at Cooley Group in Pawtucket, R.I., and The Solar Cloth Company in the U.K., is so excited about the future.

The Solar Cloth Company and Pvilion are optimistic enough to invest all of their energies into designing and installing structures with flexible solar fabric. Dalland and Pvilion co-founders Robert Lerner and Colin Touhey left FTL Solar LLC, which they had started in 2006 to make solar tents for the military and other flexible solar fabric products, to concentrate their efforts on using flexible solar fabric on permanent and semi-permanent structures. The Solar Cloth Company is just beginning to market its flexible solar fabric as a canopy-type car cover in parking lots; and its solar sail cloth, which can recharge boat batteries and supply power for small-wattage items like lights, navigation gear and communication systems, is currently available on the market.

The Cooley Group has been more cautious, devoting only one of its three divisions to flexible solar fabrics. “We’re not betting the company on one technology,” says Dan Dwight, Cooley Group’s president and CEO, but he thinks flexible solar fabric can be everywhere. “The building I’m now in is baking in the sun. Why shouldn’t we collect and use that energy with a solar-covered membrane?”

These companies are confident that they can attract customers right now. According to Dwight, “It was interest from customers using solar that led us to create a new division for Cooley Group.” These customers wanted solar power as part of their structures, and flexible fabrics expanded their options. Touhey says that Pvilion has had the same experience. “We have orders in the pipeline from companies eager to incorporate solar into their structures without using bulky rectangular panels.”

There is also a growing international segment of customers—mostly government entities—that want to cover water reservoirs with solar fabric so that energy can be generated while evaporation is prevented, says Dwight. Some covers could be as large as 1.5 million square feet, generating megawatts of electricity each day. Many governments also have mandates to generate renewable energy, which create additional opportunities for flexible solar cloth companies. According to Perry Carroll, founder and CEO of The Solar Cloth Company, this could mean a project that involves covering a country’s embassy parking lots around the world.

Style and substance

Lerner says that many companies are interested in solar fabrics because they are willing to pay a premium for something both functional and beautiful, “kind of like buying an Apple® product.” “People want superior design,” agrees Touhey, and they often are interested in promoting clean energy with their projects as well. “The aesthetics and workmanship sell the product more than the solar component,” says Carroll. “We have a Rolls Royce product that transforms a parking lot into something more functional—cars are protected from sun and rain—and much nicer to look at.”

In the end, though, companies like Pvilion, Cooley Group and The Solar Cloth Company exist because their executives think that commercial applications of flexible solar fabrics will make economic sense for their customers. Touhey notes that flexible solar fabric structures initially can cost 50 to 75 percent more than traditional fabric structures. But that’s “before federal and state tax credits, rebates, and the ongoing revenue stream from generating electricity.”

Carroll uses an imaginary company with a fleet of service trucks to demonstrate the economic viability of flexible solar fabric. “Let’s say you spend an extra 50,000 pounds [about $80,000] on 10 all-electric vehicles and 10,000 pounds [$16,000] more on covered parking spaces for them. You would save nearly 5,000 pounds [$8,000] a year on gasoline for each vehicle, and the vehicles could charge overnight at low rates while the fabric would generate profitable energy during the day at high rates.” And that doesn’t take tax credits into consideration. For retail parking lots, income could be generated by selling advertising on the structures and allowing customers to charge their electric cars while they shop.

Regarding the solar sailcloth market, Carroll thinks that it will reach at least one million square feet of cloth, or about 10 percent of total worldwide sailcloth sales, within five years. “The cost of fuel is increasing,” he notes, “and sailboat owners recognize the benefits of less smell and noise and the ability to spend a longer time at sea without recharging batteries.”

Touhey says that maintenance costs of flexible solar fabric are no greater than for regular fabric. “We initially thought it would be more, but now we don’t have any problem giving a 25-year warranty on the power output of the panels.” According to Carroll, flexible solar fabrics only require regular cleaning to keep the photovoltaic cells from being covered up.

Put this all together and “companies are willing to break even or take a slight loss for the ‘green’ label,” says Carroll. He is confident, though, that improved efficiency and lower production costs will make the decision to use flexible solar fabrics even easier in the future.

Dan Dwight and Colin Touhey share Carroll’s confidence. “The target is one dollar per watt,” Dwight says, which is roughly the cost of energy from flat solar panels; energy from flexible solar sheets is currently between two and three dollars per watt. Touhey expects more flexible solar manufacturing to move to China, which now nearly monopolizes the flat solar panel market. “It will bring prices down at the expense of American manufacturing jobs,” he says. “But it will increase the number of American design and installation jobs,” which is what happened in the flat panel industry.

Beyond the tipping point

Still, “a lot of things have to come together to create a big market” for flexible solar fabrics, according to Robert Lerner. As Todd Dalland puts it, investing in flexible solar fabrics at this point “only makes sense in the long term.” What’s needed?

1. More research funding. “Right now, flat solar panels are around 20 percent efficient and flexible solar is 5 to 10 percent efficient. We need to close that gap,” says Dwight. Improved energy storage technology will allow users of flexible solar fabric to be less reliant on the grid for energy.

2. A greener culture. “We don’t want to shovel our wealth down a hole in Saudi Arabia,” says Lerner. “We need more people to say, ‘I’m concerned.’” The more people see flexible solar structures, the more they will want to see.

3. Larger production volume. “We need greater quantity more than greater quality,” says Touhey. Lerner is confident that this will happen. “Doubling manufacturing generally brings the price down 20 percent. Photovoltaic fabric production has doubled in the past five years, and it can easily double again.”

4. Better electricity management. “We need to switch from a ‘one power plant’ model to a ‘thousands of power plants’ model,” says Dwight, which would result in better pricing for energy producers, especially during peak hours.

5. Capital. More investment will mean more production, more visibility and lower prices. “Ideally, we want investors who are motivated by a good investment opportunity, not just a ‘green’ or ‘alternative’ investment strategy,” says Dalland, who also notes that the global solar industry is growing 150 percent each year.

The concept of using flexible solar fabrics “clearly resonates with everyone who hears about it,” says Dalland. Such interest is why Cooley Group vice president Steve Siener thinks that “the overall opportunity for flexible solar will go up every year.” That’s reason enough for the specialty fabrics industry to keep a close eye on this technology—even if IFAI doesn’t rename itself EFAI any time soon.

Michael Lotti is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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