Designers want to fix the big ugly problem with solar panels

Plans to add tens of millions of solar panels across the rooftops of Beijing to stretches of rural Vermont face a common challenge — opposition from residents who view the modules as an eyesore.

That’s why designers including Netherlands-based Kiki van Eijk are focused on delivering energy arrays emblazoned with striking patterns, or equipment that blends subtly with existing nature or architecture, in an attempt to win over critics who worry adopting clean energy means souring the appeal of their neighbourhood.

“Solar panels don’t need to look industrial and clean,” said van Eijk, whose designs with partner Joost van Bleiswijk for solar roof tiles and facade modules feature imagery of sunset tones, rain drops, brushstrokes and leaves. “They have a soul.” Initial small-scale samples are currently being installed in homes in the Netherlands, with larger deployments planned for next year.

Public opposition to conventional rectangular and black arrays is becoming a more serious risk to efforts to accelerate adoption of zero-emission electricity generation, particularly as policymakers consider mandating the installation of solar panels in homes and industrial facilities. Total global solar installations are likely to rise about 30% this year compared to 2021, BloombergNEF analysts said in a May report.

California regulators in August approved plans to expand solar panel requirements to cover apartments and commercial buildings. Japan is considering solar policies for new public buildings, while China expects to accelerate additions of rooftop panels after adding a record volume last year.

Focusing on aesthetics does come at a cost to efficiency. Compared to conventional panels, van Eijk’s designs deliver around 10% less power because the solar cells are concealed beneath a printed pattern. Other alternatives like transparent photovoltaic glass can have higher losses, and in some cases provide only 60% of the capacity of similar-sized traditional equipment.

Though equipment modified to look more appealing produces less electricity, the products are likely to be adopted in higher volumes, and over larger surface areas — potentially wrapped around buildings, or across the lengths of roofs.

Here are five examples of global projects that have already attempted to combine solar installations with elegant design.

Guoco Tower, Singapore

A garden area at Guoco Tower, Singapore. Image: Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg

Solar panels on Guoco Tower in Singapore aren’t camouflaged, but you wouldn’t notice them even if you searched. Photovoltaic glass literally forms the 3,000 square-meter roof of the ground-floor pavilion, filling the space where people do yoga and shop at outdoor markets with soft natural light. The canopy transforms sunlight into about 2% of the development’s annual energy needs.

Hanwha Headquarters, Seoul

Hanwha Corp, a major producer of solar equipment, remodelled its Seoul headquarters to intersperse panels between existing windows on the building’s facade. The panels, known as building-integrated photovoltaics, sit at an angle to optimise sunlight absorption, according to Ben van Berkel, principal architect at UNStudio, which carried out the work. The 884 panels generate about 300 kilowatts of electricity a day, lowering the site’s power costs, while other aspects of the redesign to maximise natural light and heat have helped lower energy consumption by about 40%.

FTX Arena, Miami

The FTX Arena in Miami, Florida. Image: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

The home arena of the National Basketball Association’s Miami Heat is another venue that discreetly includes solar technology to help account for a proportion of its energy consumption. A pavilion that officially opened in 2016 includes circular skylights featuring about 300 crystalline silicon photovoltaic glass units. The modules allow the stadium to generate about 34 500 kilowatt-hours a year.

Dubai Frame, Dubai

The Dubai Frame architectural landmark in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Image: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg

Dubai Frame, the rectangular skyscraper that opened in the city’s Zabeel Park in 2018, features semi-transparent, gold coloured photovoltaic glass installed on its rainscreen cladding. The panes, which cover about 1,200 meters square, help account for “a large quantity” of energy demand in the 48-floor high structure, according to Onyx Solar Group LLC, which worked on the project.

Hapcheon, South Korea

Floating solar panels on the Hapcheon Dam. Image: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Away from cityscapes, installers are also making efforts to make projects more attractive. Residents in Hapcheon in South Korea requested that a floating solar plant on a reservoir have its more than 92 000 panels arranged into the shape of plum blossoms. The site features 17 giant flowers along the 12-mile stretch of water. Floating projects are particularly important in dense nations with little available land for renewables.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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