Solar Style and Solar 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.