Solar panels can drastically bring down the energy footprint of any building on which they are installed. But existing solar panels can't be used just anywhere. These flat, fragile, and transparent panels are best placed on roofs, where they can collect the most sun without being damaged—and where they also draw plenty of attention to themselves, aesthetically altering the appearance of the buildings on which they are installed. For historic buildings, solar energy is often simply not an option.
Now, a family-run Italian solar business called Dyaqua thinks it has an answer to what some might call the architectural blight of solar panels. The company has invented what it calls "Invisible Solar" panels, though that's a bit of a misnomer. These solar panels aren't so much invisible as they are indistinguishable from more common construction materials, such as concrete, slate, stone, terracotta, and even wood.
Solar panels are traditionally made up of a couple parts. First, they usually contain a photovoltaic module, which generates electricity from direct sunlight. But since these modules are fragile, they need to be encased in a housing to protect them—and because those housings must let in light, they are usually made of transparent materials, like glass. Dyaqua's Invisible Solar system works by using a special polymeric compound for this housing. This compound is opaque to the eye, and can be designed to resemble traditional materials, but it lets just enough sunlight through to power the photovoltaic module within.
According to Dyaqua's spokesperson Elisa Quagliato, the Invisible Solar technology was originally prototyped back in 2009 by her father, Giovanni, an expert in plastics and electrotechnology with decades of industry experience. He started the project in order to create a solar panel that could be installed on any of the thousands of historic buildings that dot the Italian countryside. These buildings could not have existing solar panels installed by law because their original appearance needed to be maintained. But what if a solar panel could be devised that blended in with their original architecture?
Beyond their chameleon-like aesthetics, Dyaqua says its Invisible Solar panels have many advantages over traditional photovoltaic panels, like excellent resistance to compression and impact, which allows the flat stone-shaped panels to be used as flooring or even in driveways. They also don't have to be laid flat, which means they can even be used in walls.
But there's also one big disadvantage: They aren't as efficient as traditional panels.
Asked how they compare, Quagliato insisted that it was an apples-to-orange comparison, because Invisible Solar panels are designed to be used in places where you wouldn't normally install them because of solar's visual impact. However,compared to a typical photovoltaic solar panel, Dyaqua's panels appear to collect only about 25% as much electricity per square meter—a seemingly massive disadvantage, until you consider the fact that you could theoretically cover almost every surface of a building in these, and no one would know the difference.
After seven years of development, Dyaqua is now taking sample orders for their solar panels on Indiegogo, in an effort to ramp up wide-scale production. Check out the campaign here.