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What’s the holdup?

My Take | October 8, 2013 | By:

Try Googling “photovoltaic fabrics” sometime. The first page will yield articles from 2010. Solar collector technology (the kind you might see on the roof of a house) I’ve been told has not changed substantially since I bought a house with an active solar heating system in 1979. (1979!) I don’t live in that house anymore, and I understand that the current owners took out the storage tank and removed the collectors from the roof. Why? Not cost-effective enough to repair or replace, I presume.

Photovoltaics (PV) in textiles make sense: power where you need it, provided by the sun, collected by a material that’s profoundly more transportable and easy to handle than hard-surfaced ones. The market for photovoltaic solar-energy collecting textile products should be just exploding, and given the price of energy today, you would think that the stampede to solar energy would be on—and textile products would be in the vanguard. It is exploding, actually, but it’s not making a lot of noise.

And it’s more complicated than that. While the industry has come a long way in developing products that have been proven to work, there is at least the perception that they can’t provide enough power to be worth it. Aha. “Not worth it.” Photovoltaics, especially high-quality products utilizing the latest technologies, are still pretty spendy.

According to Todd Dalland, president of Pvilion, someday there are going to be billionaires made from this technology. Based in New York City, Pvilion was founded with the goal of designing lightweight, flexible PV structures that are also beautiful. The company focuses on electric vehicle charging stations using tensioned, flexible solar panels. (See “Money to be made” in this issue.)

There are other successful businesses offering photovoltaic fabric products in the marketplace; Swedish retail powerhouse Ikea recently began offering solar panel packages, including installation, to its customers. (Not fabric-based, but the commitment shows faith in the future of solar energy, generally.)

And there are some spectacular projects getting major international attention. The first airplane to fly entirely via solar power, the Solar Impulse, completed a cross-country trip this past summer. Italian architect Paolo Venturella has designed a mosque for a city in Kosovo that incorporates a façade covered with PV film. Fabric Images Inc., Elgin, Ill., accepted a product design challenge presented by Volvo that shared top honors with its partners: building a portable fabric charging station that fits in the trunk of Volvo’s new hybrid car. (See “Fold and go.”)

And many others. By now you might be thinking, “What about Konarka?” The end of Konarka Technologies as we know it in 2012 was a fairly high-profile demise, but apparently it is not completely gone, and certainly not forgotten. It will be interesting to see what sort of phoenix arises.

Dalland says it’s going to take the support of the government to get it to the commercially viable point. No raised eyebrows or rolls of the eyes, please. Can you name a major industry that hasn’t benefited from a boost from Uncle Sam? Yes, I’m sure you can, but there are dozens that have, and you could put our current energy providers prominently on the list.

And therein lies the point. What would it take to get the necessary governmental support? I’m going to guess that the clout of a united advanced textiles industry would generate attention. The research continues, the technology becomes more sophisticated, the interest heightened and—ultimately—the cost will go down, even more than it has. These are credible developments with real-world application. The road has been long and difficult for those involved, but I have to agree with Dalland: the potential benefits are staggering.

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