I was reading this morning about a novel new paint application which can be applied to the steel panels which are used as cladding on office buildings – which then generates electricity. The conversion rate is low by solar cell standards, but it is cheap and the buildings are going to be covered in the metal panels anyway – so why not use them.

It got me thinking about power generation and how we rely on vast centralized power generation stations then transmit the electricity long distances along mains cables.

I feel that over time this model will cease to be the primary power source for most people as they switch to local micro-generation from wind turbines on roofs, solar panels, combined heat/generation plants and the like. The monolithic power plants will remain for the so called “baseload” supply and to provide surge capacity, but it would not surprise me to find that the average domestic electricity bill in a couple of decades time consists mainly of a service charge for maintaining the power cable infrastructure and less for the limited amount of electricity used.

But it is the sorts of low scale “passive infrastructure” generating opportunities which excite me the most – and this development of a “solar paint” for metal panels is an excellent example of this. No office covered in these panels can go off the grid as the efficiency is far too low, but they are cheap and offer a passive method of cheaply generating a proportion of the power supply needed.

Because you still have the mains supply anyway – and the contribution from the steel panels is minimal – you would not build an office block where the solar power is a critical component of the infrastructure. That in turn means you don’t use super-high quality electricity cables to connect the panels together. Neither would you install expensive trunking systems with easy access for maintenance – or an expensive maintenance contract to repair faults in 60 minutes.

If a panel fails, it is not important – as the solar power is a “nice to have” as opposed to a mission critical component. Indeed, if whole sections of the wall panels were to fail due to a break in the electricity cables, you would fix it next year during routine maintenance. It’s not important enough to rush out and fix it today.

That ability to develop a solar panel which is cheap enough to use without causing financial headaches and is also actually so inefficient that you wouldn’t build a mission critical system around it is what makes this so appealing. You can add it onto the design spec without spending ages persuading the occupants of the office that the technology is reliable enough or that the high cost of conventional solar panels is worth the cost – which in the UK they certainly are not.

We could over the next few decades build a large “passive” network of low key electricity generation facilities on the outside of many new buildings and while individually they are insignificant, collectively they add up to a vast opportunity for shutting down large power stations.

The release says that some 100 million square metres of steel building cladding is produced each year. If this was treated with the photovoltaic material, and assuming a conservative 5% energy conversion rate, then we could be looking at generating 4,500 gigawatts of electricity through the solar cells annually.

Yr 1: 4,500 Gw;
Yr 2: 9,000 Gw;
Yr 3: 13,500 Gw….. (etc).

According to the Association of Electricity Producers, in 2004 the UK generated a total of 393,000 Gigawatts of electricity – so it would only take a fairly reasonable 9 years to be generating 10% of the UK’s entire electricity supply from this sort of passive system. Realistically, it would probably take nearer to 30 years to reach such a target – but it is achievable, it is cheap and it is damn exciting.

Press release about the “solar paint”

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