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The coming solar revolution in tents

December 1st, 2009 / By: / Feature, Industry News

Photovoltaic fabrics are on the frontier of technologies that will revolutionize the tent rental industry.

Almost 50 years ago, Bob Dylan sang that the future is blowin’ in the wind. Today, that wind has blown in a solar revolution that, when fully implemented, will create expanded opportunities for the tent rental industry to serve a range clients—from those with small backyard budgets to large corporate war chests—with power-producing structures that are strikingly beautiful, logistically efficient, economical and good for the planet. The technology exists, as does the expertise to apply it to both new and existing tent structures.

The technology is photovoltaic (PV) cells embedded in layers of fabric to capture the sun’s rays, store it and generate electricity for multiple applications. The goal is to create lightweight and flexible solar tents and to put them to commercial, industrial, recreational and residential use—from large soaring structures for street festivals, fairs and sporting events to small portable pods, which can be used as individual units or, when linked together, can form temporary energy-generating parking structures. Tents made of fabric that stores energy to power appliances, such as microphones, overhead lights, computers, and even the battery of your new electric car.

The technology is being pioneered by FTL Solar, based in New York, which evolved out of an architectural and engineering practice that designed and built custom-made and technically innovative tents. The firm’s two divisions include a product development team led by solar energy and tent manufacturing pioneers, and a corporate management team that develops strategic partnerships and seeks research grants. To date, the corporate team has secured grants from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and the development team has created products for the marketplace.

Kicking the tires

Todd Dalland, FAIA and Robert Lerner—FTL’s founders—along with solar pioneer Richard Schoen, FAIA, and CEO Tony Saxton, have won support and valuable input from tent masters who helped test drive these early models and others still in the prototype stage, and suggested ways to make them more practical in the greater marketplace.

But they’re not there yet. “Electric tents are years away from being technically practical or financially viable from a business standpoint,” Dalland says. “For 95 percent of the industry, this is still way in front of the curve.”

FTL’s prototypical PowerMod offers a flexible photovoltaic fabric solar fly, has a standard frame and sidewalls and new-to-the-industry frame tent top. “It’s a fully functional, fully enclosable structure that makes its own electricity,” Dalland says. “It’s a tent and a generator rolled into one.”

Practical applications

Among others, industry veterans Kevin McBride, owner of PJ McBride Inc. in West Babylon, N.Y.; Alex Kouzmanoff, vice president of Aztec Tents in Torrence, Calif.; and Mike Bjornstad and Bick Jones, of Classic Party Rentals, headquartered in Los Angeles, Calif.; were among the early enthusiasts willing to lend both practical and technical advice to this technology.

McBride explored how the product could be more installation-friendly. “The concept intrigued us because it allows us to provide tents to areas not immediately accessible to generators,” he says. The practical aspects—how to assemble it, how to store it and how to store and transport batteries that can hold only a limited amount of electricity—were among the issues he assessed. Right now, McBride says, the first wave of potential users is expected to consist of charitable organizations with high visibility in the environmental arena and brand-name corporations that want to “walk the walk” on conservation and environmental protection. “In the start-up scenario, you need a committed group to pioneer these uses because the product is not yet part of the everyday inventory,” he says.

Kouzmanoff has a similar view. “I see [solar tents’] impact initially starting with corporate America,” he says. “The push behind the product in the early stages is not what power the tent can generate; it’s the power of the concept: that you can put up a fully sustainable tent. It’s not going to totally supply power for all events, but it’s creating a statement that says: ‘I am a company that thinks globally.’”

Most recently, FTL Solar signed a limited agreement with Classic Party Rentals to license its products and put them into use. This partnership will allow Classic to sell FTL’s products and to create permanent foundations and installations through its network of installers.

Bick Jones, who runs the Dallas office of Classic Party Rentals, was asked to oversee this alliance. His focus was for the product to be easily transportable, quickly and efficiently installed on-site and adaptable to standard material handling equipment and standard size tools so that a crew in the field putting them up, taking them down, transporting them and potentially replacing lost parts in the process, has a relatively standard “kit of parts.”

“Initially, we’re going through the same evolutionary process that tents went through 50 years ago,” Jones says. “We’re now adapting the solar product and making changes in the frame of the tent.” The changes will make them more like a standard tent “to provide those elements of shade and weather protection while at the same time having the unique design for flexible solar fabric so that it still creates that eye-catching look,” Jones says.

Challenges

Among the economic and technical challenges facing the venture is that the technology has not yet ramped up to achieve the cost savings and power output efficiencies of typical rigid metal and glass solar panels. There is still a significant cost premium to their use, making solar-powered tents initially more expensive than conventional models. Thus, the early focus is on branding: major corporations and foundations, power companies and others whose public image is served by being in the forefront of the green revolution. Once they fly the flag, others are expected to follow.

The technology and designs for its application are still being refined. “The tent fabric is made up of four or five layers, almost like lamination,” Dalland says. “There’s the weave, which gives it strength. Then it’s coated on both sides with additional materials that protect the substrate from moisture. Then typically, there’s a fourth layer on the top to further protect the top surface. These are all thin, flexible and lightweight. What we’re doing is laminating on another layer and its function is to make electricity.”

Despite the challenges, tent applications for solar technology are beginning to be accessible to the industry. “We want to make solar energy accessible to everyone,” Dalland says. “This material is the ultimate building envelope.”

Joanna Baymiller is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Fabric Architecture, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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