Stylish Solar: How Companies are Making Panels Look Pleasant

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The cost of solar energy is declining, and solar panels and batteries are becoming more efficient. In 2017, a number of aesthetically pleasing, technologically fascinating, and economically efficient installations have hit the market. While there are plenty more than what we’re addressing here, we’ll be taking a look at ways companies are enticing new customers to make sustainable solar energy a part of their lives.

Picture, if you will, oh reader, a scene from an ancient past when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The all-withering sun cast its pitiless eye upon the creatures that lived here, killing up to 96 percent of the planet’s life in a single fluctuation of temperature. The mighty Triceratops knew the power of the sun, as did the winged Pterodactyl that circled above.

As the ravages of time (and fiery meteoric impacts) killed the gigantic reptiles, driving their bones beneath the earth, evolution maintained its long trek to the modern, mammalian world we see today. The bodies of these mighty denizens of Earth’s past now fuel our cars and drive our industry, but we are learning the same lesson Tyrannosaurus did, oh so long ago: endless, mindless consumption will lead only to death.

Whether we sink in primordial ooze, choke upon artificial gases and pollutants, or boil away beneath atmospheric heat, the result will be the same. Tyrannosaurus knew only how to eat the weak, and could not set up a worldwide system of sustainability. This is where we, the humans, have the advantage.

We must use the almighty sun, not let it cook us alive. We’ve found ways to use the gigantic, flaming, ball in the sky that not only grant us sustainable energy, but look good in the backyard and make a great barbecue talking point. Two devices — the Smartflower and Tesla’s Solar Roof — are in the spotlight for sustainable and stylish home improvement.

Why Solar?

Solar energy continues to grow worldwide, driven by rapidly declining prices. Although solar today only accounts for about 1 percent of our total energy output, it represents 39 percent of our energy capacity growth last year — more than any other energy type. More and more people are getting solar panels installed on their homes and producing their own energy. There’s no denying the appeal; once you pay the initial cost of installation, you’re generating free energy for yourself for the lifetime of your solar array. It can slash your energy bills, and even make you money if you generate more energy than you need — not to mention helping the environment as you do.

Drawbacks still exist that are preventing solar energy from being more commonplace. First, the upfront costs of putting solar panels on your house are substantial enough most people are turned off by the start-up investment. Green energy website EnergySage quotes the average cost of private home solar panels in the United States to be $16,800 before the 30 percent tax credit. After the credit, it would cost between $10,045 and $13,475, depending on where you live and what credits are available to you.

Also, many people don’t like they way the typical rooftop or wall-mounted solar array looks as they can stand out and clash with the rest of the roof. They’re also very dependent on location. Living in locations that receive more sunshine will result in a greater return on your investment, while cloudier locales make the purchase harder to justify.

Despite the negatives, solar continues to move forward on the back of technological innovation. Companies are finding ways to make their panels more efficient, more cost-effective, and easier on the eyes.

Behold, the Flower of Power

Imagine stopping by a friend’s house to hang out on a beautiful summer day. You’re sitting on the back patio, living the lawn chair dream, when something catches your eye — a glint of metal in the afternoon sun. Before you know what you’re seeing, an enormous metal flower rises up from the ground. As you fall off your chair in shock, you realize it’s the Smartflower.

The product of an attempt to make solar power attractive and simple, the Smartflower is an all-in-one system. True to its name, it consists of a central cabinet (containing the inverter and batteries for energy storage) and several petal-shaped solar panels that fan out during active hours, then fold together and down to the ground at night.

Advertised as an all-in-one system with easy installation, the Smartflower can be set up on your property in a single day. It makes a great alternative to a traditional array if your roof isn’t an option, in case you rent and can’t modify the structure you live in, or simply don’t like the aesthetics of panels. Plus, if you need to move, you can take it with you. There are also models available for businesses and government application too.

Possibly the largest advantage and selling point of the Smartflower is all-day efficiency. While a traditional rooftop setup will experience a spike in production for a short period when the sun is at an optimal angle, then a drop off as the sun moves away, the Smartflower benefits from a steady, consistent rate of production from sunup to sundown by pivoting to follow the sun’s path. This equates to about a 40 percent increase in power output as opposed to traditional “static” solar panel arrays. They’re also self-cooled, which adds even more efficiency when compared to rooftop arrays that experience less airflow.

Of course, there are still some hurdles, most involving the still-high price point of the Smartflower. Despite its output, an analysis of the cost-to-output ratio shows that traditional arrays are still more cost-efficient (traditional set-ups cost about 9 cents per kWh, whereas the Smartflower is about 13 cents per kWh). If you’re looking purely to become energy independent and save money with solar energy, you’re still going to be better off putting panels on your roof. But, if you’re enthusiastic about the design, have the cash to spend, and want to wow Bob from the office with a giant, expanding energy flower, you could do a lot worse.

It’s also important to note too, however, that the Smartflower is still new in comparison to a traditional array. As solar technology continues to innovate and become cheaper, this dual-axis model that mimics plant-life might drive the standard solar panel to extinction. Though they’re not the only ones attempting this.

The Shingle Life

If foldable foliage isn’t your thing, Tesla has a stylish option for you. Boasting ultra-modern solar technology that is almost impossible to distinguish from a regular roof, the Tesla Solar Roof is for the enthusiast that wants low-profile panels. The solar tiles (made from tempered glass) are more durable than standard roof tiles – something Tesla has tested by firing large pieces of hail at different types of shingles:

Stylish Solar: How Companies are Making Panels Look Pleasant

Tesla solar roof tile crash test | Image source: Tesla (via Business Insider)

The big draw to Tesla’s roof, however, is their lifetime warranty. They’ve stated that their roofs are built to last 30 years or longer – longer than the average mortgage, and the lifetime of most standard roofs. According to Forbes, a full Solar Roof installation will cost about five times more than just replacing your shingles normally. Indeed, if one were to put in 50 percent solar tiles on a roof in Washington State, Tesla’s calculator says it’d cost $65,600. Tax credits would save around $17,000, and the roof would generate around $33,000 in energy in 30 years, but in the end the customer still ends up spending a pretty penny.

Though Tesla’s solar roof tiles have already sold out until 2018, they’re not the only ones working on this technology — arguably, they might even be outgunned right out of the gate. Favoring long panels that run the length of the roof instead of individual tiles, Foward Labs’ solar roofing option is 33 percent cheaper than Tesla’s tiles and takes half the time to install. Again, innovation and competition is what’s really going to drive the price of technology down and to see such fierce fighting for market dominance so early with this new wave of solar tech is optimistic to say the least.

At present, however, if you have money to spend and want to look good while you invest in the energy of the future, none of these options are a bad decision, but most of us will have to wait awhile before this kind of solar tech enters the realm of possibility. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that despite economic inconveniences, spending our money on things like solar energy carries with it the added benefit of contributing to a sustainable future. As demand fuels innovation and advancement in solar energy, companies like Tesla and Smartflower will be able to create more affordable and effective technology to make our environment safer and healthier for everyone – provided we aren’t eradicated by a meteor first.


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