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Buildings SBM Solar has developed a lightweight panel that could help cut solar energy costs.

Published on February 10th, 2010 | by Tina Casey

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Featherweight Solar Panels Breath New Life Into Crystalline Solar Cells



SBM Solar has developed a lightweight panel that could help cut solar energy costs.Exotic new thin film and spray-on solar products have been getting a lot of attention lately, but within “older” solar technology there is still room for innovation.  SBM Solar has come up with a lightweight, non-reflective solar panel based on monocrystalline silicon solar cells that could help expand the opportunities for solar installations, especially in marine and military solar applications where portability and lack of glare are significant advantages.

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Lightweight solar panels can save energy in production, transportation and installion compared to heavier glass panels, but one concern has been durability.  SBM believes it has settled that question by achieving Underwriters Laboratories certification for performance (apparently the only monocrystalline solar panels to achieve that rating so far) along with a thumbs up from the International Electrotechnical Commission.

SBM Solar and Lightweight Solar Panels

According to SBM’s press release, the non-glass panels are encapsulated in a shatterproof plastic material developed by The Dow Chemical Company.  It is not a conventional thermoplastic, which typically would be based on ethylene vinyl acetate (a substance familiar to those who use hot glue guns, moldable athletic mouth guards, or foam rubber).  The combination of the lightweight innards and the durable coating provides a number of advantages that could help lower the end cost of the panels, including a more rapid manufacturing process and a lower carbon footprint for shipping and handling.  The panels also come with a built in roof mounting system that should help cut installation costs.

Having Your Solar Cake and Eating It, Too

By focusing on savings in manufacturing, transportation and installation, companies like SBM are taking a big-picture approach that could promote higher (and more expensive) solar cell efficiency while still providing for affordable onsite solar energy.  Of particular interest are building-integrated photovoltaic applications, in which the solar cells are contained within building elements like exterior solar walls or solar roof tiles.  Building integrated solar could result in additional savings on overall construction costs, making it viable not only for high end state-of-the-art projects but also for more modest applications like emergency shelter and affordable housing.  The academic community has been quick to pick up on the affordability aspect, one example being an integrated solar electricity and hot water generator under development in New York City by an engineer at Columbia University in partnership with high school students at nearby Frederick Douglass Academy.

Image: Feather by emdot on flickr.com.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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