Climate

New ‘Solar Cloth’ Allows Solar Cells To Be Stretched Across Parking Lots, Stadiums

CREDIT: Solar Cloth Company/screenshot

A Solar Cloth array over a parking lot.

A British start-up has developed a way for parking lots and structures with roofs that can’t take much weight to harness the power of the sun.

The Cambridge, England-based Solar Cloth Company is beginning to run trials of its solar cloth, which uses lightweight photovoltaic fabric that can be stretched across parking lots or on buildings that can’t hold heavy loads, such as sports stadiums with lightweight, retractable roofs. Perry Carroll, Solar Cloth Company’s founder, told BusinessGreen that the company is working to close deals to install solar cloth on 27,000 parking lots.

“We have built a growing sales pipeline worth £4.2m [about $6.57 million] for 2015, including park and ride projects, airport parking operators and retail park owners,” he said.

According to Solar Cloth Company, there are about 320 square miles of roof space and 135 square miles of parking space in the U.K. that could be covered by solar cloth, and if all of these spaces were covered, the solar power produced would be enough to power the U.K.’s grid three times.

The key to solar cloth’s adaptability is its lightweight nature. An approximately ten square-meter piece of the cloth weighs about 7.3 pounds, far less than a traditional, silicone-based solar panel’s weight of about 35 to 48 pounds. The material is also flexible, which allows it to be installed on most roofs, regardless of their shape.

“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 Hans Haenlein, adviser to The Solar Cloth Company. “Flexible solar cloth overcomes all of these problems and can add real value to existing and upcoming sites.”

Solar Cloth won the Solar U.K. Industry Awards’ Building-Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) Solar Innovation of the Year this year, an award that recognizes projects that aim to incorporate solar into the design of buildings and other structures. The company is one of many that are looking for new ways to make solar panels lighter, more flexible and easier to install on a range of building types. Researchers have created transparent solar modules that can be applied to windows, a technology that uses solar cells that are only about a quarter of the size of a grain of rice to produce energy. And First Solar, a company that specializes in extremely thin, lightweight solar films, broke a record for solar cell efficiency earlier this year.

Solar is also starting to show up in new places, moving away from the traditional rooftop model. This week, the Netherlands unveiled the world’s first solar bike lane, a project that’s only predicted to create enough energy to power two or three homes but which, if this first test is successful, could be scaled up in the future. One couple also wants to make solar roads a reality in the U.S., replacing asphalt with hexagonal solar panels covered by protective glass.