If you follow the day-to-day news in the cleantech game, you often find yourself immersed in the future tense. There are lots of laboratory breakthroughs that might soon revolutionize energy production, records set in solar panel efficiency or battery storage or tidal energy production that could one day reinvent the whole grid.

A recent post by Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress – an overview of the extraordinary pace of change in the solar business – makes a very important counterpoint:

There is a lot of fascinating research and pre-commercial activity happening around plastic solar cells, inks, fibers and other materials. But the most exciting innovations are coming from businesses finding new ways to manufacture, finance, package, sell and install solar – all with today’s commercially-available technologies.
 

I’m not above a little gee-whizzing over the shiniest new toys now and then – I’ve written in several places, for example, about the Australian solar start-up Dyesol’s work to integrate its photovoltaic dye into the production of commercial steel roofing – but Lacey’s argument reminded me that some of the coolest stuff I’ve seen has been far less sci-fi.

For example, the niftiest bit of solar technology I encountered in Germany – the global pacesetter in solar and many other cleantech sectors – was in essence a PV panel like any other. Its manufacturer, Berlin-based Inventux, wasn’t looking to reinvent solar power but rather to streamline its implementation. The company’s marquee product, the X-Series Micromorph solar module, accomplishes this by lowering costs and hassles and by taking into account the universal consumer desire for pretty things.

Yes, there are some impressive engineering details to the Inventux module – its thin-film solar cells are made from an amalgam of amorphous and microcrystalline silicon, which lowers the amount of pricey pure silicon required to make a cell, reduces the amount of energy required in manufacture, and produces a highly efficient cell that works well even in low light.

Maybe as important, though, is that Inventux solar modules are stylish. The thin-film cells can be made into thinner, smaller modules than conventional PV, and Inventux has developed a frameless mounting system to further reduce the bulk and complication of installation. The smaller modules can be arranged jigsaw-like on a much wider range of roofs and in a much broader array of shapes. Inventux modules enable the idea of decorative solar panels. And the frameless mounting hardware is much quicker and easier to install. Quick, easy, stylish – this is a whole vocabulary long absent from green power, and it’s a welcome addition to the solar industry’s vocabulary.

Consumers on this side of the pond can do more than simply gaze in envy at these German marvels. For several years now, California-based Westinghouse Solar – formerly a start-up solar installer called Akeena – has been selling its elegant panels direct to homeowners and at Lowe’s building centers. The panels were called Andalays under the Akeena brand and were named one of 2009’s “10 Most Brilliant Products” by Popular Mechanics. Westinghouse recently signed a deal with Lennar Homes (one of America’s biggest home builders) to provide solar panels as built-in features on new homes in Texas.

Solar panels – if you’ll permit me one lapse into the future tense, maybe they’ll be the granite countertops of the next ten years. Innovation, in any case, isn’t limited to the technical specs.


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