(photo: Guust Verpaalen from Kameleon Solar in the factory hall in Roosendaal; Image: Raymond Rutting / de Volkskrant)
Original article: De Volkskrant
With Kameleon Solar, Guust Verpaalen focuses on the application of colored solar panels. Almost anything is possible – from ‘real’ marble to Ferrari red or Lamborghini yellow, but also colored patterns, logos, and pictures. And everything the company does is custom-made.
Why does green solar power come from black panels? Not many people will spend their days wracking their brains over this question, but Guust Verpaalen did. Because while black panels may get the most energy from sunlight, they’re not pretty. That doesn’t matter when they are on the roof of a distribution center, but now that the energy transition is slowly marching into the cities, ordinary buildings have to adapt as well.
New standards require buildings to be energy neutral – even in the city, where you will often find tall buildings with a relatively small surface area on the roof. They do, however, have relatively large surfaces on the façade. We’ve heard from the market that people want to put solar panels on façades, but not those ugly standard panels,’ says Verpaalen.
A few years ago, after a career in the tobacco industry (‘it doesn’t go down too well at birthday parties when you say you work there’), the tax authorities (‘same story’) and a number of books on change management, Verpaalen was ready for something new. Ideally, he wanted to lead a start-up in the sustainable sector. He started a company that developed lightweight panels. A beautiful product, but still very ugly if you hang them in plain sight, to be honest.’ says Verpaalen.
‘At some point, we asked ourselves: what is it we want exactly?’ After some internal struggles, Verpaalen decided to change course and focus on the use of colored panels. The idea was that other colors would camouflage the solar panels and would offer more possibilities for cladding a sustainable building. Immediately the name for the company was born: Kameleon Solar.
‘We looked at what was out there,’ says Verpaalen. Sparkling solar cells already existed, in all sorts of colors. They did have disadvantages, such as the silver-colored connecting wires that ran right through them. They were also expensive and had a relatively low yield. But you can make cool things with them. Verpaalen discovered panels of colored glass from the Emirates. That was promising, but the supply was not smooth at first. We would order green ones and get blue ones, or panels with footprints on them.’
One day, Verpaalen’s son, also active in the company, had an epiphany while taking a bus. The windows were stickered with advertising. Thanks to small holes, passengers can look out the window while bystanders see a colored image. If we apply this to solar panels, but inside out, the light will fall on the cells behind the pattern, while at a distance of a few meters it appears to be an even color. Verpaalen got to work with his team and produced the first panels with color and graphics.
A good result proved achievable when 60 percent of the panel is uncovered; then it still transmits lets plenty of light. ‘It worked,’ says the entrepreneur, ‘but not with all colors.’ You can’t have a white panel. White pixels become gray because to the eye they appear to be blended with the black background. But by cleverly continuing to develop, the young company managed to mimic more and more colors.
Verpaalen and his employees kept searching for other solutions, and now almost everything is possible. From ‘real’ marble to Ferrari red or Lamborghini yellow, color patterns, company logos, and even ‘real’ photographs: Kameleon Solar claims to be able to deliver it.
The company does not do mass production, everything is custom-made. ‘Like every building is custom-made.’ This means that the production scope is limited and the price is higher. ‘The first question we get is always what the payback time is,’ says Verpaalen. ‘It is longer than for ordinary panels. A few years ago, at the Sunday Congress, I said to the audience: I’m going to make panels that are more expensive and have a lower power yield. They were all people who were busy developing ever higher return percentages for their products. I was almost pelted with tomatoes.
Verpaalen grins: ‘Two years later I was at that congress again. I said: I’ve done it. We made more expensive panels with a lower power yield. And when I showed them, the penny finally dropped. Suddenly everyone was enthusiastic.’
The entrepreneur continues: ‘Think about it, if you have to choose: no energy yield at all because you can’t cover your building with black panels, or at least some energy yield, even if it is a bit lower, which would you pick? The nice thing is,’ he says, ‘that the energy generated is often used immediately where it was produced, namely in the building. This relieves the electricity grid. It’s a win-win for everybody. We offer architects and property owners design freedom, while still allowing them to create an energy-neutral building.’
One square meter of colored solar cladding costs about 500 to 700 euros, including electrical installations and mounting materials. That’s more than most façade materials, but the extra investment always pays off, according to Guust. ‘So if you’re going to renovate a façade, I think the choice is quickly made.’
By no means did we invent everything we supply ourselves, says Verpaalen. ‘But we can offer all the options available and we know the pros and cons of these various materials and color choices. It’s like a candy shop, you pick the flavors yourself.’