Designer Solar Panels Combine Aesthetics with Performance
Tom Lombardo posted on June 17, 2016 | 8324 views

Why does this photovoltaic manufacturing company, founded by MIT graduates, employ an artist?

If You Build It, They Will Complain

A few days ago, I attended a presentation on solar power. The presenter, Dave Wilms, said that he had recently been to a city council meeting where the council was voting on an ordinance to restrict residential PV installations. The issue wasn't safety - it was aesthetics. The motion on the table was to allow residents to install solar panels, but only on the part of the roof that faces the backside of the house. Wilms pointed out that solar panels need to face the sun in order to be productive, so houses whose backsides face north wouldn't generate much power from their arrays. The newly-enlightened council removed the restriction. (This is why we need elected officials who understand science and technology, but that's a rant for another day.)

I wonder how many subdivisions, villages, and cities have aesthetic ordinances that prevent residents from reaping the benefits of solar power. Well, if Sistine Solar gets its way, the point may be moot.

Just Add STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math)

Sistine Solar, a startup founded by two MBAs at MIT, includes a PhD candidate with expertise in optics and PV efficiency, a mechanical engineering student with a background in rapid prototyping, and an internationally known artist who currently resides in Italy.

The engineers have developed a patent-pending technology that creates custom-designed patterns that pass the majority of light; these designs can be affixed to PV panels, making them blend in with their surroundings. Sistine calls its innovative product SolarSkin. Here's a house with traditional PV panels, and the same house with SolarSkin:

Images courtesy of Sistine Solar
Images courtesy of Sistine Solar

Why Are PV Panels Dark?

When you see an object that appears red, the object itself isn't red - it's merely reflecting the red part of the sun's spectrum while absorbing the other colors of the rainbow. You could say that it's "rejecting" the R and "accepting" the OY G BIV colors. An object that's black absorbs all of the sun's light, reflecting none of it. The ideal solar panel is black (or a very dark blue) so it absorbs as much light as possible.

Engineering and Art

I've seen other PV panels that come in any color, but they sacrifice a lot of efficiency for aesthetics, only converting about 10% of the available sunlight into electricity. I contacted Ido Salama, one of Sistine Solar's co-founders, and asked about the engineering behind his panels. He told me, "Our panels use mono-crystalline technology. Adding any color (aside from the blue/black of silicon) will of course lead to a less than optimal light capture. Our technology is novel in that we've developed a way to re-create images, designs, and patterns using minimal color and allowing a majority of light to pass through to the panel. We trade off a tiny bit of efficiency for the sake of mind blowing aesthetics...the result is panels that are 15 - 17% efficient (about what you can get with average panels today) and that homeowners absolutely love."

Like any PV design, Sistine Solar begins with a consultation to determine the customer's needs. A full site analysis is conducted, resulting in the optimal size and location of the panels. That's the engineering part. And now the artist takes over, creating a design that has the color, pattern, or image that the customer wants. As the following video indicates, you can even get solar panels with a picture of Elvis. ThankYa. ThankYaVeryMuch.

Video courtesy of Designing Spaces

SolarSkin comes with a 25-year power warranty, just like standard "back and blue" panels.

Sistine co-founder Ido Salama's email signature says, "Engineered at MIT. Designed in Italy." All I can say is, molto bello!

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