Dr Zhengrong Shi, a graduate of the University of New South Wales, is popularly known as the “Sun King” because he was the first person to become a billionaire in the solar industry. That was more than 4 years ago. In the interim, turmoil in the solar industry caused his business, Suntech, to declare bankruptcy. Undeterred, Shi is back with a new company called SunMan and a new flexible solar panel he calls eArche because of its architectural advantages.
After three years of research and development, Dr. Shi says his eArche is the first flexible solar panel suitable for being used as a roofing material or exterior sheathing on buildings. The new photovoltaic panel uses a composite material similar to what is used in aircraft windows. That makes it nearly 80% lighter than conventional panels.
Each eArche panel weighs about 14 pounds. A conventional panel weighs almost 50 lbs. They are also much thinner than conventional panels. That means the panels needed to provide 1 megawatt of electricity can fit in a standard 40′ long shipping container. With conventional panels, only 200 kilowatts worth of panels will fit in a container. Even though the new flexible panel costs the same as a conventional PV panel, reduced shipping costs will result in much lower installation prices.
The fact that the eArche is flexible and can be trimmed to fit means faster installation times. Its lighter weight means rooftops do not need to be engineered to carry the heavy loads that conventional rooftop solar installations require. “We think governments should require all new buildings to have solar panels integrated into their structure,” Dr Shi told RenewEconomy, “With this panel, it is easy to do.” He says the new panels will offer huge possibilities for architects, given their weight, their appearance, the fact that they can be cut into different shapes, and can be curved.
Shi’s new company will focus first on the Australian and Japanese markets first. He estimates that if just 10% of the 20,000 new homes built in Australia each year used eArche panels, they would add 20 megawatts of solar energy to the country’s energy grid. His company will work with Stratco, a lightweight building materials specialist, in Australia.
SolarCity is about to start taking orders for its glass roof tiles with solar cells embedded in them but Shi says the company is going about things backwards because its tiles are heavy and rigid. (Elon Musk says the SolarCity roof tiles will weigh less than conventional roofing materials.) “The Tesla solar tile is the wrong way of doing it. That type engineering is very expensive.”
Shi claims the eArche is the biggest innovation in the solar industry in more than a decade. “Most of the cost reductions we have seen come from manufacturing, growing efficiency and supply chain,” he says. “There has been very little innovation on products and applications, so we have decided to focus on the panel itself, which has been very rigid and heavy.”
Shi anticipates the cost of solar power will continue to fall. “Look at the cost of solar already, especially in Australia. It ranges from 8c to 12c/kWh. That’s pretty cheap, much cheaper than electricity bills that the average family pays, and it is close to the wholesale price. Solar plus battery storage in Australia and worldwide — it is going to transform the energy grids. Households can become energy independent or independent from the grid if they want to.” He says about 4o kilowatts of new solar power from eArche panels has already been installed in the Sydney and Adelaide areas.