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The Solar Movement interviewed Kevin Verpaalen about the aesthetics of solar energy

Solar designers Marjan van Aubel and Pauline van Dongen interviewed our CEO about “Pretty pleases – Expanding the material aesthetics of solar energy” at the Solar Pavilion during the Dutch Design Week 2022.

The Solar Pavilion shows how The Art of Solar can address the challenges of applying aesthetic solar panels to buildings by bridging the gap between beauty and sustainability.

PvD: Kevin Verpaalen from Kameleon Solar has joined us to discuss the principle called Pretty Pleases: expanding the material aesthetics of solar energy. And we’re here underneath the roof that you helped create and design.

Can you, to begin with, explain this. What is so special about the solar panels that are above us?

KV: Well, there are several special ways in which it’s been applied. So, we have colored solar panels. The different colors have different powers usually, in colored solar panels. But we were able to even out the power for every color that’s been applied. The solar panels are actually overlapping each other, which is usually a problem. But we managed to fix that by changing the position of the solar cells in the panel.

But primarily the fact that the solar panels don’t look like solar panels, I think is the most special part, of the PV part anyway.

PvD: And the people are able to go up really close. And what are they able to see when they when they go up close?

KV: So, I think this is what’s really cool, is that you have, from different distances, you get different experiences of the solar panel. So up close you can see all these little hexagons all over the panel and they’re colored. They, the hexagons themselves, don’t actually generate any solar energy, they are just reflecting light in a specific color. And everything around the hexagons is generating energy and some light can pass through as well. So you see this nice little… all of these little shapes. And when you stand far away, all of the shapes tend to blur into one bigger color. And that’s basically the colored glass technique.

So that’s what makes it really cool. The nice thing is that even from close-up, you don’t actually see that it’s a solar panel. Lots of people don’t believe it. So, yeah.

PvD: And your panels, of course, are used for building-integrated photovoltaics, right. What are the challenges in that area? Can you explain this? Like what you run into when you work together with architects or project developers?

KV: There are a lot of challenges in the building industry for solar energy in general. It starts with the fact that an architect doesn’t want to have to make sacrifices for including solar panels in the façade specifically, which makes total sense. You don’t need… you shouldn’t have to sacrifice aesthetics to become sustainable. So, the first step in the process is always finding out which sizes are useful for the vision of the architect, but also good for fitting in solar cells. And this is kind of this back-and-forth negotiation which happens where we try to find the best way to accomplish the vision of the architects.

The next step is really, what can we do with color? We don’t want to live in this very technical building, necessarily. Sometimes people do want that. And so then we start talking about, how can we achieve the aesthetics from more of a color point of view, of like looking at the building, what is it supposed to look like?

And then we start looking at Pantone colors, RAL colors, all these different color codes which need to be translated to the PV module in the highest power possible. So that’s like the second challenge. Some solar panel technologies for color… some coloring technologies for solar panels have more options for color than others, but they also have, sometimes, more restrictions for the power that they generate.

This is once again kind of like a juggling game where you have to juggle power, aesthetics, and price. These are the three things that you’re kind of always juggling.

PvD: Sounds like you’re kind of a solar magician juggling with all these different elements!

MvA: And now the sun is actually shining on the pavilion. What I really like is that when the sun shines on it, it becomes so much brighter and stuff. That’s super nice. My question is like, why do you think it’s so important to focus on these aesthetic qualities?

KV: I’ve seen with… So, I’m barely still an eighties child and I’ve seen a lot of ugly technologies that have only become popular because we made them desirable. So, I think mobile phones is an excellent example, and a more recent example might actually be electric cars. It’s once we make something that’s very technological and actually very stuffy and boring, once we make it something that is beautiful, something that can inspire somebody, that’s when the mass will take it up and want to implement it.

And it’s such a shame that something as democratic of an energy source as the sun becomes something that’s forced upon people, where we are trying to make people use it. And that even my neighbors are talking to me about: “Yeah, I’m going to have to get solar panels.” It would be great if it’s something that people want to apply.

And that’s something… For me it’s very special when an architect comes by and they sit down, they see the options that are available and they get emotional about the fact that for the first time, they can actually design a beautiful building and have it generate energy. And yeah, I think that that’s what’s really amazing and that’s how we’re going to get to a future that is really sustainable; by making it desirable.

MvA: So, the power of beauty, basically, and maybe people will say like, “please, in my backyard” instead of like “not in my backyard, please” because that’s what’s really needed.

KV: We’ve actually done some installations in the backyard where people have said, “Oh, please, I would like to have… I have this hedge in the garden and I don’t really like the hedge, but I want to make it something green and beautiful that’s next to the hedge.”

And so then we have an installation somewhere with kind of a green-inspired artwork in the garden that generates energy because they didn’t want to put it on their rooftop just yet. So yeah, pretty does please. Definitely.

MvA: So you’re saying now that you can basically print whatever. You can print Mona Lisa or something? Will we go into the Van Gogh Museum or like other museums that we look at printed solar panels as a form of art, do you think?

KV: I really hope so. The nice thing about solar panels as a medium is that there is always some translation necessary. You have to take power into account when you are designing, to a degree, and color. And so it’s a very unique medium and I do believe that it has a place in the art world, of finding out where the beauty lies in designing with solar panels because it’s just a different medium than a canvas or a photograph. It’s very different, and I hope artists will take it up.

MvA: And I hope they don’t get the same question as like… I was looking at the solar panel, but here you said like, “what would the payback time of this painting be?”, you know?

KV: Yeah. It’s the first question everyone asks is, “Oh, how much energy is this pavilion generating versus a solar field?” And I just wonder how many people want to stand underneath a solar field and have a drink there or meet up with it in a community in such a place.

So it really is… we have to start thinking about the solar panel in a different way if we want to make it successful. Yes, it can be a great source of energy and we can use it as a pure energy generator, and it should be used that way, as well. But when we implement it in places where we’re actually replacing a material, so instead of a façade or instead of an artwork on the side of the building, which is a big thing that we do in the Netherlands, we put art on the sides of buildings. Why aren’t we making those generate energy? There’s no need for it not to do so.

So, we don’t need to think about how much power is it generating, how much watt peak does it have versus a standard panel. We should be comparing it to the material it replaces. How much energy is this design on the side of the building generating right now? Zero. So as soon as we make it a solar panel, it’s already infinitely better.

MvA: Amazing. Kevin, thank you so much for, anyway, contacting us for like, “Hey, how can we collaborate and how can we do this?” Because your way of doing this is so special. And it’s like coming from the industry, which is like, the focus is so different. Talking to design as an architect and being so open here, it’s amazing.

So, thank you for this collaboration and being part of the movement. You’re a super strong force, so thank you.

KV: Yeah, thank you, both of you. Yeah, you inspired me before I even met you. So this was a great opportunity for us and as soon as I saw the Solar Biennale was a thing, I just had to be a part of it. So, thank you so much.

MvA: Yeah, thank you.

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