Sprouting Soon: Solar Panels Sculpted As Artificial Leaves

Solar Ivy's panels aren't your typical gray slabs. They might actually improve the appearance of a house.

Solar panels don't tend to win beauty contests. Manufacturers package their photovoltaics into black utilitarian boxes that only look good out of sight. But now Solar Ivy—who we've written about before in earlier stages—is making available its solar arrays, arrays that you actually want to show the world. 

Solar Ivy, part of the Brooklyn-based sustainable design company SMIT, hopes to "challenge our notions of what solar power can and can't do." Solar Ivy uses recycled and reclaimed materials to design elegant solar systems—sculptures, almost—filling the niche between aesthetic and energetic. The technology layers wafer-thin PV onto individual plastic "leaves"attached to a wire mesh (some versions also include a piezoelectric generator at the leaf base). A 4x7-foot strip of Solar Ivy generates 85 watts of solar power, and the whole assemblage can be wrapped around structures creating the appearance of a leafy facade while also powering the building. Solar Ivy has found its way onto bus stops, designs for a five-star luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi and other domestic settings here in the U.S.

Aesthetics are not just a minor detail. Homeowners wishing to install solar panels have already been turned down by architectural review boards wary of clashing with local appearances—such as "the aesthetic of the….New England style" in one case, while states such as Colorado and California have had to pass laws preventing unreasonable restrictions on solar for aesthetic reasons.

Yet it's probably only a matter of time until sleek new solar technology has the looks to match. At least two companies—Uni-Solar and Atlantis Energy Systems—are manufacturing solar shingles or slates that blend in and even replace conventional roofs. An even more unobtrusive technology under development is solar paint made from nanocrystals that could be sprayed on to virtually any material; that's a few years out, at least.

But companies behind these new technologies bet that most people will overlook a few years of ungainly adolescence while the technology matures, and the advantages seem too obvious to turn down.

[Images: Solar Ivy]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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