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Wafer-thin solar film could be a game-changer for renewable power

5 min read

Covering the roof of every south-facing warehouse, factory and office with solar panels would satisfy the UK’s entire electricity demand. But the country generates barely 1 per cent of its energy this way – a massive missed opportunity considering it is meant to be carbon neutral by 2050, advocates say.

While total coverage of south-facing commercial building roofs is clearly unfeasible, a major barrier to a more realistic figure of 10 to 50 per cent has been that existing solar technology is often too heavy for them.

And although lighter, more flexible alternatives have been developed, they are relatively rare as they are less efficient and a lot more expensive.

Now, a company from Sunderland could be about to change that after developing light-weight miniature solar technology that is stuck on to the roof and is well on the way to being much cheaper and at least as effective as many existing flexible panels.

Assuming the final tests go according to plan, the developers hope to start selling their 0.3mm solar “film” around the middle of next year.

Power Roll's solar film in the lab
Power Roll’s solar film in the lab (Photo: Chris Dace/Supplied)

Their film could also be stuck on car, boat, caravan, lorry and flat household roofs – although the main opportunity for large-scale generation initially lies with commercial buildings, the developers say.

Further down the line, the film could be adapted to make it suitable for sloping, tiled, household roofs, by incorporating it into the tiles of new buildings and developing a version that can be stuck on to existing tiles of older ones.

“The UK’s not the sunniest place in the world but we can make commercial rooftops here economic. Our vision is to untap the surfaces that cannot be deployed,” said Neil Spann, chief executive of Power Roll, which created the film.

“We think we can play a large part in the UK’s transition to net zero. We’ve already had a lot of interest from people who have commercial buildings that aren’t particularly suited to heavy silicon panels,” he said.

“And we’ve had enquiries about putting the film on everything from e-bike stands, to charge the bikes, and bus shelters to charge mobile phones, through to bridges and central reservations. We want to put solar film on all these unloved surfaces that you just drive past – to power the lights and power the signs. And in parts of Africa and South East Asia the opportunity is even bigger – we can help change lives there,” he added.

In India, the company is conducting a pilot scheme that will use its solar film to bring affordable electricity to rural villages in the Himalaya region. These will power water pumps to support irrigation, lights to help students study and provide electricity for phones.

“Power Roll’s lightweight, low-cost, flexible solar film has the potential to positively change the global solar market. With more than 800 million people in the world living without access to electricity, this innovation could change millions of lives,” said David Hÿtch of Innovate UK, the Government’s innovation agency, which is funding pilots being run by the company in Africa and India. Power Roll has also received backing from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The film has been extensively proven on a small scale – and the developers are now working to further improve its efficiency and effectiveness on a larger scale.

The company is opening a factory near the village of Murton in County Durham this month to produce film for those bigger tests – and expects to be selling its first solar rolls within a year.
“It’s difficult to imagine an energy future that isn’t dominated by innovative solar technologies, with the backbone provided by rooftop systems, and this new British solar film could be a big step in that direction,” said Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK.


Power Roll is working on an “off-grid” charging hub for e-bikes at a rural railway station in Tyne Valley in Northumberland. Bikes would be used by commuters, tourists and for last-mile delivery.


Based on an average roof space of 40 sq m and assuming 80 per cent can be used, 4,500 kWh of electricity could be generated a year – enough to power the caravan and some surrounding lighting or the average UK household.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, added: “Power Roll looks like breakthrough technology that will make it easier to install solar in more locations.”

Commercial rooftop solar power could also provide a more visually pleasing alternative to the giant solar farms that are starting to spring up.

Power Roll’s film consists of solar cells that are thousands of times smaller than existing cells, which are made by engraving the surface with micro-grooves a fraction of the width of a human hair. Tiny electrodes are attached to the side of the groove walls and light-absorbing ink is added.

At the moment, the film is 11 per cent efficient, meaning 11 per cent of sunlight power falling on to it is converted to electrical power.

The developers are confident they can increase that to 16 per cent by early next year and potentially more in future. This compares to around 20 per cent for the standard, rigid, silicon PV that is unsuitable for many rooftops and 8 to 16 per cent for the existing flexible alternatives.

Factoring in the efficiency, the cost of manufacture, installation and maintenance together with how long it lasts – Power Roll says the “lifetime” cost of the energy its solar film generates,
per unit, will be less than half the current cheapest technology (rigid Silicon PV) by the time it reaches the market. And 70 per cent cheaper than the lighter, flexible alternatives.

While the final cost and effectiveness of Power Roll’s solar film have yet to be determined, experts are hopeful that it could play a key role in rooftop solar power – an area with huge potential to help solve the UK’s energy crisis.

Opponents of solar farm hail new option

A proposal to build a 325-acre solar farm in Derbyshire has been met with anger by locals – some of whom want alternative methods of renewable generation to be considered.

The plan, by Kronos Solar, would see an area the size of 150 football pitches near the town of Alfreton covered with panels up to 2.8m high.

Ahead of the planning decision in September, nearby residents are doing everything they can to block it – including coming up with an alternative. They heard about Power Roll’s solar film and got in touch.

Analysis of the solar rooftop potential of a business park close to the planned solar farm near Alfreton.
Analysis of the solar rooftop potential of a business park close to the planned solar farm near Alfreton.(Photo: Energeo)

“When we saw what Power Roll were doing, it just seemed like the perfect solution, because it is lightweight, flexible and cost-effective solar,” said John Cleary, chairman of the Alfreton community action group.

Power Roll says it has found plenty of suitable commercial rooftops in the area which have the potential to produce similar amounts of energy to the proposed solar farm.

Kronos has said it is willing to listen to local concerns – including changing the design to create a “landscape solution” that reduces the impact on views.

All content in this article is for informational purposes only and in no way serves as investment advice. Investing in cryptocurrencies, commodities and stocks is very risky and can lead to capital losses.

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