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“Sun King” returns with ultralight, flexible PV to reshape solar market

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Dr Zhengrong Shi, the founder of Suntech and the former UNSW PhD graduate known as the “Sun King”, is returning to the solar market with a newly developed lightweight, ultra-thin and flexible panel that he is hailing as the biggest change to the solar industry in decades.

The new PV panel uses a composite material – similar to that used in aircraft windows – that makes it nearly 80 per cent lighter than conventional panels, and thin, and flexible.

eArche Curved RoofThis makes the panel ideal to incorporate into building structures such as rooftops and facades, and to put on large rooftop structures such as factories and carports that often cannot take the weight of conventional solar PV products.

Dr Shi also says the new product – known as eArche, due to its architectural qualities – can be cut and shaped to order and is perfect to be incorporated into pre-fabricated buildings and building materials such as roofs and wall panels.

“We think governments should require all new buildings to have solar panels integrated into their structure,” Dr Shi told RenewEconomy from Shanghai ahead of an official launch in Sydney this Thursday. “With this panel, it is easy to do.”

Dr Shi estimates that even if one-tenth of the 20,000 new homes built in Australia each year used this product, that would add 20MW of solar each year. Around 10kW in each house could be easily incorporated into roofs, facades and pergolas.

Indeed, Dr Shi’s big pitch is to new housing and extensions, and not the “retrofit” market. His team has invited more than 50 architectural firms to the launch in Sydney this week, and is working with lightweight building materials specialist Stratco, and numerous other building supply companies.

Energus Stratco Solar Car Park March 2017

A solar car park designed proposed by Energus and Stratco.

He says the new panels will offer huge possibilities for architects, given their weight, their appearance, and the fact that they can be cut into different shapes, and can be curved.

Tesla, along with others, have unveiled ideas for “solar tiles” in recent years, but Dr Shi says Tesla, in particular, is going about it the wrong way, by making tiles heavy and rigid. “The Tesla solar tile is the wrong way of doing it. That type engineering is very expensive.”

Dr Shi has launched a new company, called SunMan, and an Australian company called Energus, to distribute the new products. It includes several ex-Suntech employees such as managing director Jenny Lu and marketing director Thomas Bell.

Australia and Japan are the initial major launch countries for what he describes as 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,” Dr Shi said from Shanghai. “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.”

Dr Shi says his lightweight, ultra-thin solar panels will cost about the same as conventional panels, but will cost much less to install. The material itself is only 2-3mm thick, with the entire panel width measuring between 5.5mm and 6mm.

They weigh around 6kg each, compared to more than 20kw for a conventional panel and can be transported at bulk – 1MW can fit in a 40′ container rather than just 200kW, saving on transport costs.

Dr Shi says he has been working on the new product for around three years. The key was in getting the right optics – the material had to be transparent, and it had to be durable, waterproof and flexible. He said there was also a “good thermal match” between silicon and this composite material, which avoided cracking.

Dr Shi says solar costs will continue to fall, as will the cost of battery storage, and he expects solar and storage to be ubiquitous in homes and businesses.

Battery storage costs were falling 20-30 per cent a year, and solar costs – having fallen 70-80 per cent in the last five years – would fall another 30 per cent in the next five years.

“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.”

220px-Shi_Zhengrong_-_World_Economic_Forum_Annual_Meeting_2012Dr Shi was dubbed the Sun King because he was the first person to become a billionaire in the solar industry, and was worth an estimated $3 billion at his peak. However, his firm, Suntech, collapsed in 2013, under the weight of debts, nearly four years to the day before this launch.

Already, he says around 40kW of the new technology has been quietly installed in three different sites in Sydney and Adelaide.

Many commercial and industrial customers have not installed solar because their roof structures have not able to support it.

Around 100kW of rooftop solar normally weighs around 8 tonnes. A 100kW array with the new panels will weigh little more than 2 tonnes. Ditto for solar car-ports. Adding solar PV normally requires significant amount of concrete and steel, but this will reduce the cost and offer architectural features such as curves.

It is also estimated that around 25 per cent of the residential market won’t buy solar because it “looks ugly” on the roof. his product makes the aesthetics much more appealing.  

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  • Blassphamous

    The Sun King is thinking about it the wrong way when he said Tesla is going about it the wrong way. There are many square miles of roof sitting in the sun every day. Any new advancements that put solar cells on rooftops is progress. Tesla will do well with the rigid roof tiles and Sun King will do well with his flexible panels. This is a large market with plenty of room for options.

    • Robin_Harrison

      That marketplace is about to get seriously massive.

    • Tom

      Tesla roof costs more than regular roof + solar panels. It’s for rich Americans only.

      • Larz Oldenburg

        Tesla the thief that never made any money producing anything

        • Ren Stimpy

          They never made any money for the people who shorted them.

        • Blassphamous

          Good thing that wasn’t one of his goals​! “Musk has stated that the goals of SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX revolve around his vision to change the world and humanity” Success!

      • Blassphamous

        Fortunately there are plenty of rich Americans so that shouldn’t be a problem. BMW’s are supposedly for rich people too but I see dozens every day.

      • Calamity_Jean

        OTOH, a Tesla roof is non-flammable, unlike asphalt shingles, so it will save you on your house’s fire insurance. Musk says the Tesla roof is less expensive than an ordinary roof + solar panels, but he’s in California where the building code might require fireproof shingles or tiles, because of how common wildfires are there.

        • Alastair Leith

          I though his claim was it was cheaper than a standard tile roof not even including displaced energy bills… i’ve heard about five different claims around this now, would love to see a Media Release if someone wants to dig it out!

        • JonathanMaddox

          Asphalt? I never knew. The world is a crazy place.

          Roof tiles in Australia are baked terracotta clay or concrete.

    • Larz Oldenburg

      Just wait till his next to worthless and unavailable power Walls Start burning houses down. Hope you didn’t pay to preorder one

      • Ren Stimpy

        Sounds like you shorted Tesla. Don’t feel too bad a lot of people made that mistake.

        • Blassphamous

          I thought I heard a familiar jingle playing behind that comment.

        • Larz Oldenburg

          Nope can’t put me that Clan I wouldn’t invest it a plastic face like him in the first place. I Wasnt smart enough to do it in the first few years!

    • Calamity_Jean

      “There are many square miles of roof sitting in the sun every day. Any new advancements that put solar cells on rooftops is progress.”

      Yes, this.

  • James Hanney

    “Around 100kW of rooftop solar normally weighs around 8 tonnes.” is that a typo?
    Thats 80kgs per KW…!?

    • Peter Green

      22kg per 330W….pretty close to 80kg by the time you add some metal framing to hold it onto the roof….

      • James Hanney

        Fair enough 🙂

        • Blassphamous

          Sounds like a very heavy frame.. must be lead.

          • Chris Ford

            14kg frame for 3 panels doesn’t sound that heavy?

    • Stan Hlegeris

      Also remember that 1kW of conventional PV covers 4-5 square meters, so the additional load on the roof is very small. Way less load per square meter than, say, two or three guys standing on the roof having a chat.

      • hydrophilia

        Yes. As builder and engineer (admittedly for residential), I can’t imagine many buildings that would have any trouble with an extra 20kg/m^2 dead load. Are they really built with that little leeway?

        • Alastair Leith

          Often the roof is just a metal deck covering plant equipment, ie not a concrete slab. But I would have thought the wind loading (upwards) would be much higher than that kind of load.

          • JonathanMaddox

            And sidewards.

          • hydrophilia

            Ah, yes, that might be too light-duty. I’m used to fairly high dead load and wind load requirements in my locality.

      • Alastair Leith

        Like these three guys… Uniting Church in WA 100kW, William St office building they own b/w their church and offices, so they can never get shaded out unless a skyscraper goes in across the other side of William street on the north. (100kW is at the limit on PV systems in WA before an energy retailing licence is required, they could have fitted another 10kW on this particular roof I reckon). Did i mention that the top floor tenant is Rio Tinto #ironyfactor

        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fe09e16213cdabcf0bef870dac80886bd219f44560a859a8f50aba07b5aa0737.jpg

  • solarguy

    I wonder how the panel will perform due to the shape pictured, showing 3 inclinations for the one panel or strip. If they haven’t sorted that problem out, what use will it be!

    • Alex Rogers

      The panel pictured was installed as a shelter and power supply for a vending machine in Japan – i.e. a very specific application. The CEC-approved eArche panels in Australia to date are flat, but flexible, and can be curved over a radius of up to about 900mm. Our engineers at Energus can advise about performance for any particular application desired.

  • Joe

    There are other well established PV technologies for thin lightweight flexible solar panels like from Flisom from Switzerland. Their panels are looking great and can be integrated everywhere around a building. The flexible CIGS thinfilm technologies are much more suited then the c-si ones – there is higher degree of curvature possible, no cell breakage, better look and good customization possibilities… check out Flisom.com

  • Maybe then the burghers of Nevada (and other desert areas in the USA) will start fitting rooftop solar – at the moment it is regarded there as a negative on the value of your MacMansion. (unlike Oz).

    • Alastair Leith

      sad. just like washing lines are banned in many gated communities b/c shock horror, other people’s underwear!!

      • JonathanMaddox

        Madness. Wet cloth should be dried directly by the sun and the breeze, without the intermediary of electric appliances.

        • 小杜 (xiao du)

          I prefer to do mine in a dryer.

          1 – I have plenty of excess electricity from my panels daytime, its wasted if i don’t use it. (Offgrid as utility/muni are anti-solar; there are distinct disincentives to either feed back or use unreliable grid power).

          2 – 5 hrs of sun in South Africa is enough to bleach some of the color out of the clothes.

  • E35II

    I have no problem with this IF there are no taxpayer subsidies. NONE !

  • Radbug

    How well does it stand up to hail the size of golf balls? … This will become widely available at the same time that blackouts roll around the grid, next summer!!

    • Calamity_Jean

      How common is hail the size of golf balls? That’s really big hail.

      • JonathanMaddox

        I’ve seen it on average every five years or so. Once, cricket balls.

        • Calamity_Jean

          I’m impressed. Cricket-ball-sized hail could kill you. No wonder Australians want such strong roofing material.

    • Mike Shackleton

      As it stands normal roofing has struggled to deal with hail like that, car roofs struggle to deal with hail like that. Being flexible is probably an advantage – hail would bounce off rather than shatter it.

  • Is he putting a 20 year warranty on them like other panels?

  • 小杜 (xiao du)

    “They weigh around 6kg each, compared to more than 20kw for a conventional panel”

    20KG. Weight is in Kilograms.