20 June 2016

Driving solar energy innovation

One UK company is leading the way in finding new ways to deliver solar energy

International Festival for Business 2016

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The idea for flexible solar panels came to Perry Carroll while he was sailing in a race between Rhode Island and Bermuda. Sun, a fabric sail… it was a combination that led him to develop a business based on a totally new concept in renewable energy.

His Cambridge-based Solar Cloth Company makes flexible solar panels that can be fitted onto curved structures such as domes. Because they're lightweight and unobtrusive, they can also be fitted to rooftops where glass panels would be too heavy or would detract from the design.

Crowdfunding growth

In 2014, 396 crowdfund investors trusted Carroll with £1.25m of their money, which led to a company valuation of £7.5m. Solar Cloth is aiming to expand to a team of 45 people and a £10m turnover.

"In the summer of 2004, the idea of powering my boat with a solar sail came to me," says Carroll.

"The concept behind it was simple, but turning it into reality was very different. I'm not a trained material scientist, I don't have a PhD in photovoltaics and I'm not an expert sailmaker. I had to learn all about this industry and not just at a superficial level."

In 2006, Carroll moved to Spain, where the Americas Cup meant he'd have access to the world's best sailmakers. He picked up consultancy work to fund his research - still with the basic idea of a solar sail. In 2010, he had a sail that worked.

Diversifying the product

"It was then that I realised we had passed through a technology gateway," says Carroll. "It would be possible to use the same technology on other fabrics for environments that were not as demanding as the sea."

The first order, in 2012, was for 15 carport canopies at Cambridge Research Parks. The power generated from the panels is fed into the adjoining building and there's also a socket to connect an electric car.

The company now works in four linked areas - tensile structures, with or without solar; traditional glass solar panels for large car parks; disaster relief products, such as solar shelters, and R&D for both in-house projects and for others who need Solar Cloth's expertise.
Their products use second-generation solar technology - thin film photovoltaics (TFPV).

While they're 20 per cent the weight of standard panels, they produce around 15 per cent less energy and cost twice as much. But, rolls of TFPV can be fitted on the top of a building over a few days, allowing for "millions of square metres of space on structures to be converted to solar."

Driving the use of solar energy

"In the UK, factories account for around 13 per cent of the energy consumption and most of them are potential sites for solar rolls," adds Carroll. "If we use areas like these, we don't have to build solar sites in the countryside.

"We have millions of car parking spaces in Great Britain, and there are around 30 million cars on the road. Those parking spaces - park and rides, at shopping centres, office complexes and airports - are a massive potential market."

Carroll expects the cost of his products to drop as they become more mainstream, but also believes more should be spent on researching and harnessing solar energy.

"It needs a change of mindset. We should be happy to pay for guaranteed energy. Solar might not be a cheap commodity when you take the technology it requires into account, but it is a solution to many of our problems."

In the UK, factories account for around 13% of the energy consumption and most of them are potential sites for solar rolls. If we use areas like these, we don’t have to build solar sites in the countryside.

Perry Carroll, Solar Cloth Company

Key takeaways

  • Inspiration for new business ideas can come in the most unusual circumstances
  • Solar rolls could be used in a variety of locations from factories to car ports
  • Despite the initial cost solar could be the solution to many of our energy challenges

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