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Customised solar panels to help boost solar adoption

27 February 2017

MIT start-up aims for wider US solar adoption with photovoltaic panels that can display any image, from a country flag to a company logo.

Sistine Solar creates custom solar panels designed to mimic home facades and other environments, as well as display custom designs, with aims of enticing more homeowners to install photovoltaic systems. (Image courtesy of Sistine Solar)

Founded at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Sistine creates custom solar panels designed to mimic home facades and other environments, with aims of enticing more homeowners to install photovoltaic systems.

Sistine’s novel technology, SolarSkin, is a layer that can be imprinted with any image and embedded into a solar panel without interfering with the panel’s efficacy. Homeowners can match their rooftop or a grassy lawn. Panels can also be fitted with business logos, advertisements, or even a country’s flag. SolarSkin systems cost about 10 percent more than traditional panel installations. But over the life of the system, a homeowner can still expect to save more than £24,157, according to the start-up.

SolarSkin is a layer that employs selective light filtration to display an image while still transmitting light to the underlying solar cells. The ad wraps displayed on bus windows offer a good analogy: The wraps reflect some light to display an image, while allowing the remaining light through so passengers inside the bus can see out. SolarSkin achieves a similar effect — “but the innovation lies in using a minute amount of light to reflect an image [and preserve] a high-efficiency solar module,” co-founder Senthil Balasubramanian MBA ’13 says.

To achieve this, Anthony Occidentale, a MIT mechanical engineering student who has helped further advance SolarSkin, and others at Sistine have developed undisclosed innovations in colour science and human visual perception. “We’ve come up with a process where we colour-correct the minimal information we have of the image on the panels to make that image appear, to the human eye, to be similar to the surrounding backdrop of roof shingles,” Occidentale says.

As for designs, Sistine has amassed a database of common rooftop patterns in the United States, such as asphalt shingles, clay tiles, and slate, in a wide variety of colours. “So if a homeowner says, for instance, ‘We have manufactured shingles in a barkwood pattern,’ we have a matching design for that,” he says. Custom designs aren’t as popular, but test projects include commercial prints for major companies, and even Occidentale’s face on a panel.

In December, the start-up installed its first residential SolarSkin panels, in a 10kW system that matches a cedar pattern on a house in Norwell, Massachusetts. Now, the Cambridge-based start-up says it has 200 homes seeking installations, primarily in Massachusetts and California, where solar is in high demand.

“We think SolarSkin is going to catch on like wildfire,” Balasubramanian says. “There is a tremendous desire by homeowners to cut utility bills, and solar is finding reception with them - and homeowners care a lot about aesthetics.”


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