Intelligent shading helps save energy

Shade structure and awning manufacturers are making shade pay for customers.

The importance of green technology is growing, with many industries finding new ways to integrate sustainable techniques into their products and services. Awning and shade structure manufacturers and fabricators have also been exploring how to give their products an eco-friendly edge.

By their nature, awnings already have implicit benefits when it comes to protecting the planet. “Intelligent shading technologies can make a contribution toward saving energy,” says Darren McNeil of Markilux of California in Newbury Park, Calif. What’s more, many awning and shade structure fabric makers are implementing green manufacturing processes.

But perhaps the biggest, boldest leap is coming in the form of shade structures relying on the sun not only to charge sensors and motors, but also to generate power. The same products that control solar gain capture the sun’s energy and convert it to electricity. The developing technology, and the outlook of awnings and shade structures as power generators, also provides fuel for an interesting—and worthwhile—discussion.

PV and wire-free

Today’s awnings are a far cry from past offerings, thanks to their ability to be controlled remotely and expand and retract automatically. For example, Somfy Systems Inc. of Cranbury, N.J., has developed Radio Technology Somfy® (RTS) to allow the controls and accessories to communicate wirelessly. These smart applications include a wind sensor that detects movement on three different levels—lateral, horizontal and vertical—as well as a solar-powered sun sensor that will move the awning automatically into position once the user sets the threshold for sun intensity.

Awning manufacturers are also looking at other ways to rely on the sun beyond powering sun and wind sensors. In summer 2010, awning maker Stobag North America of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, will introduce motors that are powered by photovoltaic (PV) technology—the process by which sunlight is converted to energy. A thin, blanket-like PV substrate is attached to a 10- to 15-square-inch section atop the awning, capturing enough energy and storing it in a battery to retract or project the awning more than six times. “Our motors don’t require wires anymore,” says Rolf Jahn, general manager of Stobag North America.

The company has spent more than three years on the integration of the thin PV sheet to the awning fabric. “Because you have 100 square feet or more of awning fabric, you can generate a lot of electricity that can be used to power lighting and heating,” Jahn explains. That technology is expected to be available to consumers in 2010.

The power of fabric

In addition to awnings, other shade structure manufacturers and fabricators are exploring the possibilities of photovoltaic (PV) integration—and with good reason. “Fabric is the vehicle for flexible photovoltaic cells to be delivered to society,” notes architect Todd Dalland, president, founder and chief development officer of FTL Solar LLC in New York, N.Y., and Austin, Texas. “Fabric has characteristics similar to those of photovoltaic cells, which are super thin, lightweight and flexible, as opposed to large glass or metal sheets in rectangular metal frames, which are the conventional vehicles for photovoltaic panels.”

PV cells integrated into fabric “use fewer resources from the earth to make something that has less mass and is much lighter in weight,” Dalland adds. “They also enable the structures to be relocatable, portable and deployable.”

FTL Solar has produced a series of products, with more under development, that use thin-film PV panels on shade and shelter structures for commercial, residential, military and disaster-relief applications. For instance, the PowerPark I is a tensile structure with integrated solar power made up of four 20- by 20-foot power shelters known as PowerMods. According to FTL Solar, a single PowerMod can power an eight- to 50-watt laptop computer for six hours a day. In 2009, the company also teamed up with Classic Tents in Torrance, Calif., to market and install its PowerMod Solar PV Rental Tents in North America.

Another company that hopes to capture some of the emerging PV-cell-on-fabric market is ShadePlex LLC in Toledo, Ohio, which produces high power, lightweight flexible fabric-framed solar panels. In December 2009, the company installed its first prototype in which its PV-FlexMount™ panels were integrated into a small fabric carport in a commercial parking lot. Not only does this installation provide shade and generate clean solar electricity, it also features “plug and play” capabilities that allow it to charge hybrid electric vehicles.

Brian Tell, president of ShadePlex, estimates that, depending on where the installation is located, 4 to 7 kW hours of electricity can be generated per parking spot, per day—enough to charge an electric vehicle battery. “The typical airport, mall, school or office building has hundreds—if not thousands—of open, unshaded parking spaces, which means multiple shade structures [using PV-FlexMount] can easily support typical commercial power loads in addition to providing shade, UV resistance and protection from the elements,” Tell says.

In terms of textiles used, “We have done most of our prototyping on PVC-coated fabrics, but we have also had success with acrylics and Tedlar®-coated fabrics,” Tell says. “We are using fabrics that can get 20 years or more in the field because we are trying to match the life span of the solar panels, which will last 25 years.”

Solar partners

Some shade structure producers have found that forming a partnership is the key to joining PV technology and fabric. Such has been the case with Longwood, Fla.-based SKYShades. In early 2008, the company entered into a development agreement with Konarka Technologies Inc., Lowell, Mass., which develops and fabricates Power Plastic®, a thin, flexible material that converts light to energy.

SKYShades, whose products are made using a high-density knitted polymer shade cloth, has deployed two prototype solutions since it formed its partnership with Konarka. With Konarka’s Power Plastic, SOLARBrella™, installed at a school in Florida, can produce enough energy to charge cell phones and laptops while providing shade for the students.

The second, installed in November 2009, is a shaded parking structure at the offices of Greg Norman Golf Course Design in West Palm Beach, Fla. Eighty feet long by 20 feet wide, it covers six parking spaces plus a handicap-accessible bay. Its solar energy output will power outdoor lights and charge hybrid electric cars. Both products utilize clear pockets that house the solar power strips, so as Konarka’s technology improves the end user can easily exchange the old PV film with a new one.

Those who have delved into the use of PV technology are recognizing that shade structure fabric has now become “electricity generators that have no moving parts, are totally silent, exhaust no fumes and require no oil-based products, and that actually use free and abundant sunlight for fuel,” Dalland says.

A highly charged outlook

The future looks bright for awnings and shade structures that use the sun to charge their controls and produce clean energy, and the benefits are clear: end users can save on their energy costs and generate electricity using a natural resource, while bringing an aesthetic touch to everything from home exteriors to parking lots. “It’s not only a matter of developing new technologies to save energy, but also to allow companies to make products in a clean and responsible manner,” says McNeil of Markilux.

Tell envisions that his company’s products will be used in tents and shelters for military and emergency relief applications, clearspan fabric structures and low- or flat-sloped roofs for commercial uses, such as sporting domes and shopping malls. In fact, ShadePlex is preparing to introduce its commercial flat roof product, called PV RoofRite, sometime in 2010. Tell also believes that parking structures will continue to hold promise in this category. “You can make a PV system with rigid solar panels, but we find a lot of property owners don’t want to do that,” he says. “They think they’re an eyesore and don’t integrate well, and architects can’t do a lot with them.”

Owners of hybrid electric cars may find these structures particularly attractive, according to Joe McKenna, executive vice president of SKYShades. “You have limited distances you can travel with these cars,” he says. “As more of these vehicles come into the mainstream, you need more solar recharging stations available. We believe that the tension membrane structures with PV technology will help solve that challenge.”

Additionally, the rising cost of coal-powered electricity may encourage homeowners and commercial end users alike to consider shade structures with solar energy capabilities. “Electricity has been rising 4 percent per year for 10 to 15 years and is likely to continue to increase,” Tell explains. “At the same time, solar-powered electricity is becoming less expensive and more affordable. These factors will be the biggest drivers of the solar industry.”

Jahn adds that photovoltaic cells today offer 600 times more power than they did in 2006. He compares the evolution of this industry to that of cell phones. “Twenty years ago, it was like holding a brick in your hands,” he says. “Nowadays, the phones and batteries are newer, smaller and cheaper.”

According to FTL Solar’s Dalland, the industry has a monumental future in store. “An inexorable, epochal trend has begun,” says Dalland, who theorizes that the fabrics industry can become a decentralized power company by storing energy in rechargeable batteries and/or feeding power back into the grid. “Fabric will never be the same again now that it makes electricity. I don’t see any area where there won’t be an ability to join flexible photovoltaic cells with fabrics.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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