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.
This 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.
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.’
Dr 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.