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Rethinking solar power for a new generation of green buildings

When you think about solar power and buildings, likely the first picture that comes to mind is rows and rows of black panels on a roof. But for the past three years, an exciting project called ENVISION has been working on a new and improved solution for solar capture.


Solar panels have been achieving good yields for years and are affordable and reliable. However, there’s limited space on buildings to accommodate them. They also face significant barriers to adoption, including the fact that their appearance can distract from the aesthetic design of the building and surrounding area.


What if we could find a way to capture the sun’s energy from every surface of a building and make this solution colorful, as well as practical? That was the starting point for ENVISION, a unique collaboration of nine partners – including AkzoNobel – which set out to devise a way for buildings to invisibly harvest energy. 


While it’s the first time such a solution has been conceived, every aspect has been considered: simple installation with pre-fab elements; easy maintenance and cleaning; large-scale deployment potential; the ability to link up with the district heat grid; and cost effectiveness. The concept combines solar panels, a heat pump and click-on, heat-harvesting facade elements.


With around 60 billion square meters of unused facade surfaces in the European Union, and just as much roof surface, it’s a project with huge green building potential – which could rival other heating solutions and has proven to be an alternative to gas. In fact, several pilot projects have already shown a bright future for solar capture.


A demonstration of full-scale ENVISION technologies on houses in the Netherlands is showing how effective they are. But exactly what role do coatings play in this demonstration? To understand, we have to look at how sustainable coatings for buildings work.


The many and varied sustainable coatings for building exteriors currently produced by AkzoNobel include KeepCool technology, which can reflect up to 85% more infrared radiation than comparable products. This keeps interiors cooler and lessens the need for air conditioning. The ENVISION project, however, is designed to do exactly the opposite – absorb energy.


The innovative facade system developed for a sports hall in the Netherlands shows how this solution works. The venue, located in the city of Almere, is covered by solar collectors that capture the thermal energy buildings would normally absorb. It’s then used to heat and cool the structure.


One of the big challenges for the team to solve was how to avoid having to use black panels – not ideal for the look of a building exterior – even if darker colours do absorb heat better. That’s where the experts at AkzoNobel came to the rescue. 


“By working together, the consortium came up with an innovative solution which allows heat to be captured by colours that traditionally reflect near-infrared light – not just black,” explains AkzoNobel senior scientist, Anthonie Stuiver. “The sports hall, for example, is covered in vibrant shades of green. It’s a practical and sustainable solution for making buildings energy positive – and existing houses more climate-friendly – which also gives consumers freedom of colour choice.”


Stuiver adds that the company is also looking to create different pigment effects, as well as the more familiar brick and wood patterns found on most houses – opening up even more possibilities.

“Innovation is part of our DNA,” adds Stuiver. “Projects such as ENVISION enable us to demonstrate our passion for paint and prove the depth of our expertise. 


“At AkzoNobel, we’ve made it our business to deliver the sustainable and innovative solutions that our customers, communities and the planet increasingly rely on. So of course we’re proud to be breaking new ground – guided by our purpose of People. Planet. Paint. – and helping transform what green buildings will be like in the future.”


The project was recently nominated for a European Sustainable Energy Award and continues its work to bring energy positive buildings – those that harvest more energy than they use – within reach. We’re now looking to scale up the solution and for support from partners, in energy management for example, in adopting the technologies that it offers. 


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