The solar power segment has grown exponentially in the past few years. In step with this expansion, the solar industry has been increasingly focusing on technological innovation. A case in point is the eArche solar panels introduced in March 2017, by Dr Zhengrong Shi, a University of New South Wales PhD graduate who is also known as “Sun King”.

eArche solar panels are super flexible, ultra-thin panels, which are made of a composite material similar to that used in airplane windows. These are 75 per cent lighter than conventional photovoltaic (PV) panels. The combination of silicon and composites prevents cracking in panels. The width of the entire panel is 5.5-6 mm. As compared to a typical rooftop solar plant panel, which weighs around 8 metric tonnes for a 100 kW array, the eArche panel weighs just around 2 metric tonnes for 100 kW. These panels cost the same as conventional panels but are relatively cheaper to install. This can be attributed to the light weight of the product, which will reduce transportation costs, and its customisable and flexible design. The panel has an added advantage of an innovative manufacturing process, which allows the panels to be customised to any shape and size. It can also be made semi-transparent. These features make eArche ideal for installation on building facades, rooftops, buses and carports that often cannot take the weight of conventional solar PV products or support panel mounting structures.

To create a semi-transparent, durable, flexible and waterproof structure, it was a challenging task to get the right material. “Most of the cost reductions (in solar panels) we have seen come from manufacturing, improved efficiency and the supply chain,” says Dr Shi, founder, Energus and SunMan. “There has been very little innovation in products and applications, so we decided to focus on panels, which have been very rigid and heavy.” The eArche panels have been introduced recently after being under development for about three years. Marketed through Australian company Energus and Hong Kong-based SunMan, the panels have already been installed at three locations in Sydney and Adelaide, Australia, totalling a capacity of 40 kW.

Going forward, Shi believes that solar PV system costs will continue to fall, along with the cost of battery storage systems. Further, he says that the adoption of solar plus battery storage systems in Australia and worldwide will transform the energy grids as households will have the choice to become energy independent. With lightweight panels offering a clear advantage over bulky conventional panels, eArche has a huge potential in the solar market and is expected to make a positive impact on the adoption of solar technology. For instance, if one-tenth of the 20,000 homes built in Australia each year deploy this product, about 20 MW of solar power capacity would be accumulated per year. The low-profile aesthetic of these panels is expected to increase the acceptance of solar technology in the residential market. Hence, Shi is particularly focusing on the residential segment and is pitching the product to architectural firms and building material supply companies. Given their light weight, blending appearance and the fact that they can be modified into different shapes, the panels offer huge possibilities for architects.

“We think governments should require all new buildings to have solar panels integrated into their structure, Shi says. In addition, the technology can be utilised on recreational vehicles, yachts, vending machines, etc.

Owing to its innovative design and wide scope of applications, eArche stands apart from the large number of innovations in the segment. While the development of flexible, thin-film panels is not a new concept, eArche is one of the first such products launched on a commercial scale. With its novel design, it is likely that eArche will face a few teething problems in the coming years. However, if successful, it can lead to significant uptake of solar across various applications.