The Beautiful Future of Solar Power By Marjan van Aubel

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Thu Apr 09, 2020 8:42 am

Last summer, I was hiking through the Austrian mountains. And there, on top, I saw this beautiful, stone, remote hut, and it had solar panels on it. And every time I see solar panels, I get very enthusiastic. It's this technology that takes sunlight, which is free and available and turns that into electricity.


So this hut, in the middle of nowhere, on a beautiful location, was self-sufficient. But why do solar panels always have to be so ugly?

My name is Marjan Van Aubel and I'm a solar designer.  I work in a triangle of design, sustainability, and technology. I strive for extreme efficiency, meaning that I develop materials that expand in size or work with solar cells that use the properties of colors to generate electricity.

My work is in museums all over the world, such as MoMA. And, I mean, it all went quite well, but it always felt that something was missing. And it was until I read the book called the "Solar Revolution, where it says that within one hour we receive enough sunlight to provide the world with enough electricity for an entire year.

One hour. And since then, I realized I just want to focus on solar. Scientists all over the world have been focusing on making solar panels more efficient and cheaper. So the price of solar has dropped enormously. And this is because China started producing them on a large scale.

And also their efficiency has increased a lot. They now even have an efficiency of 44.5 percent. But if you think about the image of solar cells, it's kind of stayed the same for the last 60 years.

It's still this technology just stacked onto something.  And solar cells need to be much better integrated into our environment. Climate change is the biggest problem of our time.

And we can't rely on the others -- the government, the engineers -- to make positive changes. We all can contribute towards change. As I said, I'm a designer and I would like to change things through design.

Let me give you some examples of my work. I'm collaborating with Swarovski, the crystal company.  And if you cut crystals in a certain way, you are able to bend and direct the light onto a certain place. So I use these crystals to focus the light onto a solar panel, making them more efficient, but using aesthetics.

So you take the solar crystal with you in the light, there's a battery in the solar cell, you put it in a docking station and you are able to power these chandeliers.

So you're literally bringing the light indoors. I got completely hooked on solar when I came across this technology called dye-sensitized solar cells, colored solar cells, and they are based on photosynthesis in plants.

Where the green chlorophyll converts light into sugar for plants, these cells convert light into electricity. The best thing is, they even work indoors. So different colors have different efficiency, depending on their place on the color spectrum.

So, for example, red is more efficient than blue. So if I hear this as a designer a colored surface, a glass colored surface, a color that's mostly just used for esthetics, now gets an extra function and is able to harvest electricity, I think, where can we apply this, then?

This is the Current Table, where the whole tabletop consists of these colored solar cells. There are batteries in the legs where you can charge your phone through USB ports. And in my work, it's always very important, the balance between efficiency and aesthetics.

So that's why the table is orange because it is a very stable color indoors. And this is always the most asked question I get. OK, great, but how many phones can I charge from this, then?

And before I go to this complicated answer of like, well, where is the table, does it have enough light; is it next to a window?

The table now has sensors that read the light intensity of the room. So through an app, we developed you can literally follow how much light it's getting, and how full the battery is. I'm actually proud, because yesterday we installed a table at Stichting Doen's offices in Amsterdam and, right at this moment, our Queen Maxima is charging a phone from this table. It's cool.

So the more surface you have, the more energy you can harvest. These are Current Windows, where we replaced all windows in a gallery in London, in Soho, with this modern version of stained glass.

So people from the street could come and charge their phones through the window ledges. So I'm giving extra functions to objects. A window doesn't have to be just a window anymore.  It can also function as a little power station.

So, here I am, talking about how much I love, but I don't have solar panels on my roof. I live in the center of Amsterdam, I don't own the house and it's a monument, so it's not possible and not allowed.

So how can you make solar cells more accessible and for everyone, and not only for the people that can afford a sustainable lifestyle?

We now have the opportunity to integrate solar in the place where we directly need it. And there are so many amazing technologies out there. If I look around now, I see every surface as an opportunity. For example, I was driving on the train through the Westland, the area in the Netherlands with all the greenhouses.

There I saw all this glass and thought, what if we integrate those with transparent solar glass? What if we integrate traditional farming that requires a lot of energy together with high-tech and combines those?

With this idea in mind, I created Power Plant. I had a team of architects and engineers, but let me first explain how it works. We use transparent solar glass to power its indoor climate. We use hydroponics that pumps around nitrified water, saving 90 percent of water usage.

By stacking up in layers, you are able to grow more yield per square meter. Extra light, besides sunlight, coming from these colored LED lights also enhances plant growth. As more and more people will live in big cities, by placing Power Plants on the rooftops you don't have to fly it in from the other side of the world, you are able to grow it on the location itself.

Well, the big dream is to build these in off-grid places --where there's no access to water, electricity --as an independent ecosystem. For this year's Design Biennial, I created the first four-meter high model of the power plant, so you could come in and experience how plants grow.

So it's a double harvest of sunlight, so both for the solar cells and for the plants. It's like a future botanical garden, where we celebrate all these modern technologies. And the biggest compliment I got was, "But where are the solar panels?"

And that's when I think the design really works when it becomes invisible and you don't notice it. I believe in solar democracy:  solar energy for everyone, everywhere. My aim is to make all surfaces productive.

I want to build houses where all the windows, curtains, walls, even floors are harvesting electricity. Think about this on a big scale: in cities, there are so many surfaces.

The sun is still available to everyone. And by integrating solar on the place where we need it, we now have the opportunity to make solar cells accessible for everyone. I want to bring solar close to the people with you, but beautiful and well designed.

Source: TED YouTube
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