Beyond the tipping point

solar sail

Still, “a lot of things have to come together to create a big market” for flexible solar fabrics, according to Robert Lerner. As Todd Dalland puts it, investing in flexible solar fabrics at this point “only makes sense in the long term.” What’s needed?

  1. More research funding. “Right now, flat solar panels are around 20 percent efficient and flexible solar is 5 to 10 percent efficient. We need to close that gap,” says Dwight. Improved energy storage technology will allow users of flexible solar fabric to be less reliant on the grid for energy.
  2. A greener culture. “We don’t want to shovel our wealth down a hole in Saudi Arabia,” says Lerner. “We need more people to say, ‘I’m concerned.’” The more people see flexible solar structures, the more they will want to see.
  3. Larger production volume. “We need greater quantity more than greater quality,” says Touhey. Lerner is confident that this will happen. “Doubling manufacturing generally brings the price down 20 percent. Photovoltaic fabric production has doubled in the past five years, and it can easily double again.”
  4. Better electricity management. “We need to switch from a ‘one power plant’ model to a ‘thousands of power plants’ model,” says Dwight, which would result in better pricing for energy producers, especially during peak hours.
  5. Capital. More investment will mean more production, more visibility and lower prices. “Ideally, we want investors who are motivated by a good investment opportunity, not just a ‘green’ or ‘alternative’ investment strategy,” says Dalland, who also notes that the global solar industry is growing 150 percent each year.

The concept of using flexible solar fabrics “clearly resonates with everyone who hears about it,” says Dalland. Such interest is why Cooley Group vice president Steve Siener thinks that “the overall opportunity for flexible solar will go up every year.” That’s reason enough for the specialty fabrics industry to keep a close eye on this technology—even if IFAI doesn’t rename itself EFAI any time soon.

Michael Lotti is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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