A new solution could help secure deals when potential solar customers see modules as eyesores. Sistine Solar produces a graphic film called SolarSkin that installers place on high-efficiency solar panels to blend the modules with the roof. Red Spanish tile roofs can now go solar without the noticeable blue and black rectangles installed on top. The solar installer could instead attach a SolarSkin film that mimics the same red tile design and brings a higher level of aesthetics to the project.
That’s the main thing that motivated Sistine Solar co-founders Senthil Balasubramanian and Ido Salamato to create this new product—poor aesthetics were holding solar back from being more popular.
“We were frustrated by how good the technology is, how affordable it is, and then the reaction from the homeowners is that they wouldn’t put that on their roofs,” Salama said of solar. “There was this disparity between this amazing technology and something seemingly insignificant but a real barrier.”
Salama and Balasubramanian met at the Sloan School of Management at MIT and used their mutual love for solar and desire to increase installations to form Sistine Solar in 2013. Two years later, the company received a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative Award and got to work developing and testing the SolarSkin idea. Vetted by NREL testing, the first SolarSkin installations appeared in the wild in 2017.
Now the company is developing a dealer network to find the right installation partners. Any U.S. solar installer is welcome to work with the SolarSkin product, but Salama said Sistine Solar is looking for certain qualities in installation partners.
“We’re going to vet the right partners for every region,” he said. “We like for installers to use rail-less systems, trim skirts and certain panels. We’re really trying to make these aesthetic-minded decisions for the homeowner and have an installer on the same page. In 2017, we spent a lot of time hand-holding projects where a better installer would have been a better partner. We want to make sure every touchpoint for us is getting the right experience. A good installer is doing half of it, and we want to make sure that half is done right.”
Sistine Solar uses a proprietary printing process to put graphics on a thin-film polymer. Any image can be printed on the SolarSkin, but Salama said marketing efforts right now are focused on the residential market and customers wanting to blend solar into the roof. Sistine Solar has mapped out many popular roofing options and can match roof designs fairly well. If a solar customer has a brown GAF shingle roof in the Northeast, there’s a SolarSkin design already matched for that.
The solar installer then attaches the SolarSkin to the panels before roof installation. Sistine Solar suggests only using black-backsheeted panels, as the uniform background better displays the SolarSkin’s graphics. Black panels are usually automatically high-efficiency designs, which helps with the small amount of efficiency the panels lose with the SolarSkin covering.
Salama said solar panels with SolarSkin lose between 1.8 and 3% in efficiency. A 19%-efficient module may become 16% efficient. It’s a small thing to lose considering the aesthetic gains the solar customer receives.
“Using the high-efficiency brands, we’re getting very competitive projects,” Salama said. “Maybe a few customers ask about efficiency, but I’m not really sure if they understand the word. Solar panels look [the way] they do because scientists and engineers developed them for maximum efficiency and lowest cost. That’s different than what a homeowner thinks when they’re powering their home. Efficiency is an option, but they’re looking at what solves their entire need.”
Sistine Solar recently launched its SolarSkin Design Studio, an online platform that lets homeowners customize a SolarSkin install on their own virtual roof and see real-time pricing information.
“We want to take away the stigma of, ‘How much does solar cost? Come down to my dealership and we’ll talk,'” Salama said. “We want to arm the customer with information, let them do their research and let them come to you.”
The expected life of a SolarSkin is 10 to 12 years, but Salama said that’s more to do with color fading than product failure. If a homeowner is fine with a little duller SolarSkin in year 10, then there’s no problem with leaving it on the panels. If it is an issue, the SolarSkin can be removed or replaced. Solar Sistine offers a 25-year Peace of Mind Warranty on the SolarSkin and associated solar products.
The SolarSkin pushes solar panel prices up 5 to 10%, Salama said. Customers may be willing to pay for aesthetics, but Sistine Solar understands that doesn’t mean they’ll pay a massive premium. The company is still focused on bringing solar mainstream.
“We had a very strong focus on wanting this to become a mass-market product as opposed to only 0.5% of folks can afford this,” Salama said. “We want solar to become mainstream. We want to find a way to make a product more appealing and get homeowners emotionally excited about solar, and do it in a way that most people can afford.”
Having the option of using SolarSkin opens the solar install market up to even more opportunities. Previously inflexible HOAs may now consider solar. Also interestingly, SolarSkin can be adapted to fit small solar shingles. Instead of only having the Tesla shingles as a “seamless” solar roof option, other BIPV products can integrate into the roof even more with SolarSkin.
“You start to see the world a little differently when you recognize where solar can go if it didn’t look like solar,” Salama said. “We should see solar in a lot more places.”