Australia’s green bank backs flexible, lightweight eArc ‘solar skins’


Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) today announced it would commit US$7 million through the Clean Energy Innovation Fund to Shanghai-based company’s US$12 million Series B capital raising. The funds will be used to further develop and deploy the technology behind panels and optimise installation processes.

Unlike traditional glass panels, eArc panels are made from a lightweight polymer composite material and can be glued to surfaces. The eArc panels are 70% lighter than glass panels, making them both cheaper to transport and easier to install.

The company’s founder, Zhengrong Shi, who was the founder of what at one point was the biggest solar module maker Suntech, describes the panels as a “solar skin” which is able to be moulded to contoured surfaces, offering potential for use beyond conventional rooftops. They could be used for mobile power generation, for example, suitable for remote sites and vehicles.

Ultimately, Dr Shi envisions the modules eventually being integrated into construction materials. “The next frontier is to deliver on their potential to encase the exterior of a building by integrating the technology into construction material.

“The CEFC support will enable us to realise this long-term vision and transform the way we use solar panels,” the entrepreneur said in a statement.

Dr Shi, a graduate of UNSW School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, is confident the efficiency, quality, durability and cost of the eArc panels gives them a competitive edge over similar products on the market.

eArc Aussie deployment

Due to the building’s heritage status, weight constraints, and the steep sloping roof, the museum could not use conventional solar modules. Fitting the museum roof with the 812 panels,

the 235 kW system was the company’s biggest project in Australia to date and reduced the museum’s electricity consumption by 25%, cutting its electricity bill by about $50,000 a year.

The eArc panels also power Byron Bay’s solar train, moulding to fit the train’s curved roof.

Aspirations to cater to untapped segment

The CEFC is confident the innovative technology behind the eArc modules could significantly increase Australia’s rooftop solar penetration. Australia is already a world leader in rooftop solar, with more than 2.4 million rooftop solar PV systems on residential dwellings.

Nonetheless, according 2019 research co-developed by the CEFC, Australia is using less than 5% of its capacity for rooftop solar, with untapped potential in commercial and industrial sites.

This is precisely the segment Dr Shi is planning to tap into. He estimates 40% of commercial roofs are structurally “slender” and cannot accommodate the weight or uplift of glass solar modules.

“eArc opens up the untapped membrane roof market, a segment that has been overlooked by many solar installers as being too expensive or difficult.

“Unlike glass modules, eArc can be bonded like a “solar skin” directly to these roofs with zero penetration,” Dr Shi said.

CEFC CEO Ian Learmonth is backing the solar entrepreneur’s vision. “The flexibility of the eArc panel means we can be more creative about where we install solar PV, moving beyond flat rooftops to awnings, carports, carpark canopies and building facades.

“The lighter weight of the panels also means solar can be extended across existing rooftops on factories, warehouses, garages and other structures that are not strong enough to support heavier glass panels,” Learmonth said.

eArc modules are also touted as quicker, easier and less disruptive to install than conventional glass modules, making them even more attractive for businesses.

“Our eArc modules are providing a wealth of benefits to businesses around Australia, and with this new investment, that will only increase,” Dr Shi said.

“Sunman is excited to work with the CEFC to increase Australia’s solar panel uptake.”

CEFC’s future in the spotlight amid proposed changes

While the equity investment into Sunman marks a bold move for the CEFC, the lender’s future direction has been the subject of considerable debate.

The Australian government-owned green bank was created in 2012 under a deal between Labor, the Greens and independents with a mandate to invest in the clean energy sector.

Despite the prime minister describing the CEFC as “the world’s most successful green bank,” the Morrison government has proposed changes to allow the CEFC to use the fund to support gas-fired generation  in line with the government’s gas-led recovery plan.

The proposal is scheduled to be debated in parliament today and has been the subject of backlash since it was announced. Earlier this week, ex-senior officers of renewable energy agencies including former CEFC chair and ex-Reserve Bank board member Jillian Broadbent, former CEFC CEO Oliver Yates, former board member professor Andrew Stock, former ARENA chair Greg Bourne and chief Ivor Frischknecht, all called on MPs to reject the government’s changes, saying the bill undermines the bank’s independence and low-emissions remit.

Both Labor and the Greens have said they will oppose the changes, with the Greens labelling the bill a “shameless attempt to bankroll gas corporations with public money meant for renewables”.

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