Biomimicry run amok can be a beautiful thing, and that’s the driving force behind a new portable solar power canopy called Lotus Mobile. The brainchild of solar innovator Joseph Hui, who happens to be obsessed with flowers as well as butterflies (and solar power), Lotus Mobile is a lightweight, pole-mounted, solar canopy composed of 18 petal-like solar modules. The petals are arranged in a sequence inspired by the lotus flower, and like petals they fold up to protect against severe weather including strong winds. The unusual design is delicate-looking but tough enough for its intended use, and it chips away at some of those notorious “soft costs” that have been keeping solar power tantalizingly out of reach for many.
Portable Solar Power Canopy Inspired By Lotus Flower
Hui is President and CEO of the company behind Lotus Mobile, Monarch Power (yes, the butterfly not the king), and he makes it quite clear that the Lotus plant is his inspiration not only for the design of the folding canopy but for the overall concept:
“Best of all, you know that you are learning from nature to protect nature, just like the Lotus plant that takes sunlight and water and turns that into fuel, without creating a carbon footprint. The only footprint is a nice architectural shade that your neighbors would find attractive.”
A Folding Solar Power Canopy To Cut Soft Costs
That last line might seem overly optimistic in terms of neighborliness, but it does bring up an important point about the “soft costs” of solar power.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, about half the cost of a typical solar array consists of installation and grid connection, as well as regulatory obstacles including zoning, permitting and inspections.
As a non-permanent or semi-permanent shade canopy, it’s possible that the Lotus Mobile could do an end run around at least some of those obstacles. Hui makes the case that Lotus Mobile should be treated like any other removable backyard canopy, though that would depend on whether or not local zoning boards agree.
A Low-Cost Solar Power Canopy
The Lotus Mobile also has a few other design elements that contribute to low cost solar power.
The canopy is designed as an off-grid device and its lightweight design helps to cut down on installation costs, partly because it enables a greater degree of flexibility in siting and partly because it cuts down on a lot of the framing needed for conventional installations.
The weight factor is trimmed down by the use of plastic and aluminum, which are admittedly are not as strong as steel frames and glass-based solar panels when it comes to withstanding extreme weather. However, it fits in with the concept of a canopy-like device that can be easily tucked away for protection.
Lotus Mobile also combines concentrating solar technology, solar tracking and high efficiency solar cells that convert sunlight to both electricity and hot water.
Hui anticipates an installed cost of $1.50 per watt, which stacks up well against the current, conventional installed cost he cites at $4.00, though it falls short of the Energy Department’s low cost solar power goal of $1.00 per watt under the Obama Administration’s SunShot Initiative.
On the other hand, by Hui’s calculations the installed cost of a Lotus Mobile would be about $9,000. Even without rebates, that makes for a relatively short payback period especially in hot climates where the AC is constantly running. For the growing number of EV owners with solar-capable homes, the payback would be even more attractive.
At that price point, the Lotus Mobile could also find a market in disaster response and community development projects.
Solar Power Makes Strange Bedfellows
In an interesting twist, Hui is set to introduce the Lotus Mobile (paired with a Tesla EV, no less), on March 27 at the Arizona Solar Innovation Event at the state capitol, where Governor Jan Brewer will make a pitch for attracting solar innovators and investors to Arizona.
That’s a little unexpected, considering that back in December Governor Brewer was pretty clear about her status as a global warming denier, at least to the extent of denying that human activity is responsible for global warming.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that Arizona’s solar industry is an up-and-coming economic engine for the state, and in a more recent speech the Governor was just as clear that she aims to make Arizona the nation’s solar power industry leader.