The developers at MoZaic East worked with artists, engineers, designers and architects to create the unique solar system in the Uptown district.
An eight-story, block-length solar array like no other now overlooks the busy Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Wavy bands of inclined panels, each colored in gray and purple checkerboard patterns, stretch between rows of office windows the length of the MoZaic East building. The result is reminiscent of circuit boards or the bold and box-shaped work of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrain.
“One can say with certainty [MoZaic East] is the first of its kind in the world – there has been no other facade solar system that uses multiple colors and designs and these multiple offset angles, ”said Senthil Balasubramanian, CEO of Sistine Solar, whose company developed the“ SolarSkin ”product with which the panels coated are colorful designs.
The 43 kilowatt project came about after the building owner, the Ackerberg Group, received a grant from the regional planning organization Twin Cities, the Metropolitan Council. The guidelines called for a “very visible urban solar demonstration,” said Mike Munson, Ackerberg development director. The company considered placing solar panels on one of its lots, but decided to go a step further and “make this project elaborate because this is such a beautiful building,” he said.
The idea that Ackerberg would mix art and clean energy comes as no surprise. The company’s commercial and residential buildings display art both indoors and outdoors, with the courtyard shared by MoZaic East and MoZaic West providing the equivalent of an outdoor sculptural park. The building offers many sustainability features such as electric charging stations, a green roof, bicycle parking and a gold-level rating from the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.
The rather photographed north side of the building towers over the Midtown Greenway bike path with huge windows and little space for plates. The solar project had to be on the “boring” south side of the building, which faces Lagoon Avenue, a busy one-way street parallel to the city’s better-known Lake Street.
Ackerberg initially looked at European solar modules for building facades, but found that the product required government approval before it could be used in the United States. All Energy Solar, Ackerberg’s installer, brought in Sistine Solar, which makes custom standard panel covers for residential and commercial buildings. The product is often used by homeowners in historic neighborhoods or neighborhoods with homeowners association restrictions to match the style of their clapboard.
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Commercial customers typically add SolarSkin to brand their name on panels to show their commitment to sustainability, or for artistic projects like the one at MoZaic East that are still rare. Companies are just realizing the potential of using solar panels as displays. “Most people don’t even know that solar energy offers an aesthetic option,” said Balasubramanian.
Sistine Solar’s design staff worked with MoZaic East’s architectural firm, Allianz, on prototypes and test designs before choosing the checkerboard pattern. “There were artists, engineers, designers and architects involved. It was a great collaboration, ”said Balasubramanian.
The camouflage on the panels reduces electricity production between 1% and more than 20%. A simple logo or clapboard-like cover for a home system isn’t going to lose a lot of solar production, he said. Busy, vibrant design results in higher losses, with the Ackerberg project likely to cost 15-25% of the power generation.
(Photo by Katherine Jossi / for the Energy News Network)
Part of the challenge was taking into account the color of the building’s facade. The side changes from purple to light gray and runs in between, depending on how the light hits the surface. “This project was novel and it strained our construction muscles more than other projects,” said Balasubramanian.
After choosing the patterns, MoZaic East architect Ernesto Ruiz-Garcia suggested tilting the panels to create undulating strips instead of static rows flush with the facade. To meet this demand, All Energy Solar developed a bespoke mount with seven positions that a company in St. Paul made for the project.
The modules can be tilted away from the building or tilted upwards, where they generate more solar gain, according to Michael Thalhimer, Director of Business Development at All Energy Solar. The brackets hide electrical controls behind panels from passers-by who look up. “The layout gives you a wave aesthetic that bends on and off the building,” he said.
The innovative “skins” from Sistine Solar could make solar energy more palatable to critics who would rather not see solar energy on roofs or in the green field, he suggested. Art can have a way of taming public controversy over intrusive projects, and if it finds its way into the clean energy industry, it could serve to ease neighbors’ worries.
“Undoubtedly this is a special project – this is not your usual everyday solar installation – but I think it rightly speaks for the versatility people can have today in the way they run solar,” said Thalhimer. “There was once a way to set up solar panels, but there are two or three new ways that are more aesthetically pleasing.”