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Konarka's Power Plastic Turns Buildings into Power Plants

Konarka\'s Power Plastic transparent solar panels will be pilot-tested at Arch Aluminum in FloridaSolar energy innovator Konarka is out to prove that you can have your sustainable cake and eat it, too.  The Massachusetts-based company has launched a pilot project that will integrate its proprietary Power Plastic solar panels into the non-loadbearing exterior wall of a building, called a curtain wall. The new design makes solar energy a seamless part of the building rather than an afterthought.


The solar energy curtain wall project will be constructed in Tamarac, Florida, at an office building owned by Arch Aluminum & Glass Co., Inc. Arch and Konarka have teamed up to demonstrate that an active solar glass wall could enable the structure of a building to generate sustainable energy for its internal operations.  For now the partners appear to be focused on commercial and industrial applications, but if the curtain wall proves cost-effective it could also open the door for integrated solar panels in a wide range of residential and institutional structures.

Curtain Walls and Solar Energy

Curtain walls earned their name because although they are the exterior walls of a building, they do not need to be strong enough to support its structure.  They are made possible by modern construction and design methods which place the load-bearing work on internal supports.  Curtain walls are responsible for the modern “glass tower” look, but until now glass has been a major source of energy leakage in buildings.  Now Konarka and Arch Aluminum are set to stand the equation on its head, and turn a glass wall into an energy-generating canvas for Konarka’s film-and-ink lightweight solar panels.

Beyond Curtain Walls

The pilot project between Konarka and Arch is expected to generate 1.5 kilowatts to the building, based on a peak output of 40 watts per panel.  More importantly, it will serve as a “living laboratory” to test a variety of solar panels under different conditions, which in turn is expected help develop the Holy Grail of building-integrated photovoltaic systems: a transparent solar panel suitable for curtain walls that could provide both passive solar daylighting and active solar energy.

Solar Powered Buildings

The Konarka pilot project represents a conceptual sea change in solar energy for buildings, which up until now has been treated as an appliance or add-on.  It is not beyond imagination to see the day when value-added solar walls, windows, and other structural elements become a standard building feature.  Rainbow Solar (RSi) is another company experimenting with building-integrated solar panels, New Energy is developing transparent solar windows that use interior fluorescent lighting to generate energy, and industry giant Dow is close to commercializing solar shingles that replace conventional asphalt roofs.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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