A new lightweight, ultrathin and flexible solar panel recently introduced to the market by Suntech founder ‘Sun King’ Dr Zhengrong Shi is expected to transform the solar industry.

Made from a composite material, the new solar panels are about 80 per cent lighter than conventional panels and are being marketed for use on rooftops and facades as well as large rooftop structures such as factories and carports that often cannot take the weight of conventional solar PV products.

Named Earche due to its 'architectural qualities', the flexible panel can be cut and shaped to order for installation on prefabricated buildings as well as roofs and wall panels.

Calling on governments to make it mandatory for all new buildings to have solar panels integrated into their structure, Shi said even if one-tenth of the 20,000 new homes built in Australia each year used the new panels, 20MW of solar power can be generated. Shi is pitching his solar innovation to new housing and extensions, and not the retrofit market, and reckons that the new panels will offer design freedom to architects, given their weight, appearance and flexibility to be cut into different shapes.

According to Shi, most of the cost reductions in the solar panel industry have come from efficiencies in manufacturing and supply chain, and not necessarily due to any innovation on products and applications. Suntech, therefore, decided to focus on the panel itself, which has been very rigid and heavy.

Shi says his panels will cost the same as conventional panels but will save money on installation. The material is only 2-3mm thick, with the entire panel width measuring about 5.5-6mm. Each panel weighs around 6kg, compared to more than 20kg for a conventional panel. The new Earche range can also be transported in bulk with 1MW of material fitting in a 40-foot container rather than just 200kW, saving on logistics.

Expressing his thoughts on the future of the industry, Shi believes solar costs will continue to fall, as will the cost of battery storage. Battery storage costs were falling 20-30 per cent a year, and solar – having fallen 70-80 per cent in the last five years – would drop another 30 per cent in the next five years.

According to Shi, solar plus battery storage in Australia and worldwide will transform the energy grids with households having the choice to become energy independent. Around 40kW of the new technology has been quietly installed in three different sites in Sydney and Adelaide.

With the lightweight panels offering a clear advantage over bulky conventional panels, Earche is expected to make a positive impact on the adoption of solar technology. Their low profile aesthetic is also expected to increase acceptance of solar technology in the residential market where 25 per cent of potential customers won’t buy solar because it ‘looks ugly’ on the roof.