The lightweight solar cloth is suitable for tensile structures such as carports

Flexible photovoltaic cloth wins solar industry Oscar

A photovoltaic textile material that can be used to cover non-load-bearing roofs has been named the best solar tech innovation of 2014.

Hailed for its versatile application potential, the solar fabric created by Cambridge-based start-up The Solar Cloth Company has been awarded the UK Solar Industry Award for the best building-integrated photovoltaic innovation for its test installation on a roof of a carport in Cambridge.

“The Solar Cloth Company has come up with some truly innovative yet simple technology that offers an alternative solution to clunky and heavy traditional PV panels,” said Sir Robin Young, The Solar Cloth Company Advisory Board chairman and former permanent secretary for Department of Trade & Industry.

Suitable for all types of surfaces, the solar cloth could unlock the yet unexplored renewable energy generation potential of the UK's warehouses, airports and supermarkets. The company estimates there are about  830 million square metres of commercial roof space and 350 million square metres of car parking space in the UK alone which could be unobtrusively covered with the lightweight photovoltaic fabric.

If all these surfaces are covered with the solar cloth, the engineers say, it would provide enough power to feed the UK’s grid three times over.

One square metre of the material, the UK’s first thin-film photovoltaics, weighs only 3.3kg – considerably less than the 16-22kg per square meter for conventional crystalline silicon-based solar panels.

The rather massive weight has so far been the major limiting factor preventing installation of photovoltaic technology on many seemingly suitable surfaces such as roofs of football stadiums, warehouses, supermarkets and datacentres.

“One of the main hindrances to solar panel adoption is that they can be difficult to install and integrate with existing architecture functionally and aesthetically,” said Professor Hans Haenlein, MBE and advisor to The Solar Cloth Company. “Flexible solar cloth overcomes all of these problems and can add real value to existing and upcoming sites.”

The company, working with multiple UK universities on developing its technology, has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube seeking £750,000 to scale up its commercial operations.  

“The applications of thin flexible photovoltaics is tremendous – from commercial installations to clothing and other tensile structures,” said Perry Carroll, founder and acting CEO of The Solar Cloth Company. “For example, there is over 1.1 billion square metres of commercial roofing space in the UK, which is a huge amount of space that is perfect for our flexible solar panels.”

Apart from winning the Solar Industry Award, the solar cloth is also among the finalists of Cleantech Innovate 2015, an annual competition backed by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which is looking for the most scalable and investible cleantech companies.  

The Solar Cloth Company is currently in talks with two of the UK's largest retailers to roll out its thin-film solar panels across their stores, as well as on the roofs of multiple airports and some London museums.

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