In January 2021, five women artisans from Mozambique and three designers from the Netherlands gathered in Linga Linga, a small peninsula in Mozambique–for a three-week design residency. This resulted in two prototypes: a lampshade that lights up in the dark and a small purse that charges a phone.
The workshop was a collaboration between several studios in Mozambique and the Netherlands, including Pauline van Dongen, a Dutch fashion designer specializing in textiles and smart clothing. Van Dongen believes in a future where everything runs on solar energy, so she is planning the world’s first Solar Biennial later this year. And his timing couldn’t be better.
Solar energy is booming. In the last decade alone, the number of installed solar panels in the United States has increased by 40%, while the cost of their installation has fallen by more than 70%. Now, the Biden administration wants the country to generate nearly half of its own electricity from the sun by 2050 (up from just 4% in 2020). The infrastructure bill that was passed in November includes billions of dollars for clean energy projects, creating momentum for more innovation in the industry.
Already, a growing number of designers and startups around the world are leading what Van Dongen calls the “solar movement”. in the windows. Another turned dreary solar panels into patterned masterpieces by redesigning the look of the silver lines on the panels. Elsewhere, designers are creating colored glass tables that can soak up the energy of daylight and charge your devices, clothes that can charge your phones, and textile roofs that can span buildings while operating the city. energy from the sun. As solar power becomes more affordable, the options multiply and 2022 may well become a banner year for solar power.
The Solar Biennale will be held in Rotterdam and will bring together solar energy pioneers, including designers, researchers and philosophers. It was designed by Van Dongen and another giant in the solar design industry, Dutch designer Marjan van Aubel. For them, the dominant discourse around solar energy so far has been technocratic, focused on returns on investment and efficiency. “It makes it difficult for people to identify with and connect with solar power on a more cultural level,” says Van Dongen.
This is where design comes in. Designers have the ability to take technology and help people understand and engage with it. Unlike other renewable energy sources, solar power comes in many forms: you can’t put a wind turbine in your backyard (although a neat new wall can change that), but you can wear a solar powered jacket, renovate your home with solar windows, or find ways to incorporate solar into your daily life.
Van Dongen is currently working with a Dutch textile architecture company called Tentech to develop a woven structural fabric with woven thin film solar panels. The goal is to develop a textile that can be used as a building material, so it must be fire retardant and durable, too. “This opens up new applications for integrating solar technology into large tents and textile facades,” she says. It would also help a solar powered building to look good.
For now, most commercial solar panels are designed to be attached to a rack that is attached to the ground or screwed directly into the roof. But a whole new movement is emerging, where our buildings themselves are becoming the signs. This is called building-integrated photovoltaics. The most famous example is Tesla’s solar shingles, but more and more examples are popping up.
This year’s Dutch pavilion at Expo Dubai was powered by translucent solar cells embedded in a colored glass roof, courtesy of designer Marjan van Aubel. And in Paris, a soon-to-be-completed duo of towers (by French starch maker Jean Nouvel) will present an entire facade made up of 825 panels in golden hues. These were designed by Solar Visuals, a Dutch company that develops building facade modules that can take any shape and pattern imaginable.
Ultimately, the more options individuals and businesses have for switching to solar power, the more likely they are to adopt it. Garrett Nilsen is the Acting Director of the Office of Solar Energy Technologies at the Department of Energy, which supports funding for photovoltaics and other solar technologies. Nilsen says steadily declining costs have led to the adoption of solar power, but much of our experience so far has been filled with “transactional frictions,” like getting permits and determining how much. how much you will save on long term bills. “Now that we’re at a lower cost level, maybe the friction is coming from somewhere else, like what does something look like?” ” he says.
Each year, the Solar Energy Technologies Office receives $ 280 million from Congress which it uses to fund a wide range of solar energy research and development efforts through training programs and competitions like its very coveted American-Made Solar Prize. (Now in its fifth year, the latter is giving out a $ 3 million prize to accelerate solar innovation.)
Over the past few years, SETO has focused on a number of areas, including architectural integrated solar solutions that could help make solar energy attractive to more people. In 2016, SETO awarded $ 1 million to a startup called Sistine Solar. Headquartered in Sommerville, Mass., The company has developed a set of graphic overlays that can match any roof aesthetic, from terracotta to a fully customizable look with a company logo on the roof. Since then, the company’s signs have been deployed in nine states nationwide. And this year alone, SETO awarded $ 405,000 to a new startup called Asoleyo, which creates “proudly solar” panels with intricate patterns. “There is absolutely room for real creativity in terms of what the future of solar can look like,” says Nilsen.
Ultimately, the adoption of solar power could work as a ripple effect. More government grants lead to more innovation, which leads to more private investment. In 2020, venture capital investments in climate technologies hit a record high of $ 16.4 billion. For now, Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which proposed $ 1.75 trillion in social and climate spending, is dead. But the solar outlook is bright even without it. “We’re going to have a huge 2022 for solar, regardless of the big bills that bounce,” said Bill Nussey, founder of the Freeing Energy Project, whose mission is to accelerate the shift to cleaner, cheaper energy. .
Nussey has spent the past three years interviewing over 300 solar experts and innovators for his latest book, Release energy. For him, everything lies in smaller-scale projects, like a single school installing solar panels on its roof, or even a small neighborhood opting for community solar. “If you want to work on climate change, you have to make great products and you have to let the communities take charge,” he says.
Back in Mozambique, the collaboration between solar designers and local artisans resulted in a new material called “solar palha”, which translates to “solar palm” and was used to create the lampshades and handbags. which are sold in local markets and provide income for artisans. The material was born in just a few weeks, but it made solar energy tangible in a way that large-scale solar farms did not. ” For women [in Mozambique], solar energy has become more accessible and understandable, ultimately enabling them to strengthen their position within the community, ”says Van Dongen.