Last year in the U.S., solar power grew by more than 100 percent to more than 1 gigawatt of generating capacity, according to a recent story in Renewable Energy World. This year, it’s again predicted to at least double. That’s certainly good news for San Diego-based Envision Solar—and it could also benefit composites manufacturers.
Envision Solar designs and develops solar infrastructure with an eye toward design. Its products, including LifePort, a solar carport, and LifeTree, a solar shade canopy for the backyard, are meant to deliver solar power in a way that complements the existing architecture of a building.
“We want solar to look good,” explains Envision founder and CEO Bob Noble. “It’s all about being off the roof and having solar you can see.”
This year, the company plans to debut another addition to its line of solar-integrated building systems, one it believes will be the first ever to incorporate composites.Its ComposiTree will be an engineered solar tree structure that can produce up to 14 kilowatts of electricity, enough to charge 8 to 10 electric vehicles. Unlike the company’s existing solar trees, whose base and canopy are steel, ComposiTree will be made from composites.
Envision decided to create a composite version of its solar tree because the materials offered more flexibility for their design, an important characteristic for a company that’s seeking to set itself apart from the competition by bringing high-design architecture to its solar structures. The FRP composites it is testing are around one-fifth of the weight of steel, which will save money on shipping and handling and reduce the need for heavy equipment for delivery and installation, thus reducing labor costs. Composites are also 30 to 50 percent cheaper than the steel used in other solar trees, and they don’t corrode or require treatments or coatings.
Envision has worked with Chula Vista, California-based Ebert Composites to design some composite parts for ComposiTree, the first prototype of which it anticipates in the third quarter of this year. They are currently designing pultruded components as well as sandwich panels with foam and honeycomb cores to see which offers the best cost benefit, aesthetic appeal, and performance characteristics that will allow them to meet IBC requirements for the locations where they’re built.
Beyond his own business, Noble says he could see applications for composites in other areas of the solar industry, such as a replacement for traditional aluminum or steel rooftop solar racks.