We're All About to Start Wearing Solar Power

Eventually, our clothes may actually be comprised of thin-film solar panels that are not a sartorial joke.

Jul 8 2013, 8:55pm
Image: Solar Coterie

Thus far, most wearable solar panels have been a joke. Solar backpacks, solar handbags, and solar shirts have all looked undeniably tacky in that loud and special sort of way that only obtrusive, early technologies that have not yet breached the cultural vernacular can look. 

Think massive cell phones and Michael Douglas on the beach. Think beepers in the early nineties. Think Google Glass a year ago. But thankfully, designers and solar tech fiends are pressing on, because we all know that eventually that giant cell turns into the iPhone and Glass will become an eyeball implant that allows us to search the internet via controlled retinal twitches. 

And eventually, our clothes may actually be comprised of thin-film solar panels that are not a sartorial punchline. The technology is evolving, slowly, into something we may yet want to surround ourselves in. There are signs.

Here's maybe the best stab yet: Solar panel-lined headphones that funnel power to your iPhone whilst you're listening. Inventor Andrew Andersen has launched a Kickstarter to fund the creation—and eventual mass production—of OnBeat headphones, which do exactly that. 

The headphones seem to be designed in the mold of the immensely popular Beats Audio headphones, but they've got a 55 square cm poly-crystalline silicone solar panel outfitted across the band. It's got two lithium ion batteries, and, according to Andersen, can "provide a full battery recharge" for any smart phone or tablet. 

Fine idea, but a bit of a steep ask—the Kickstarter is looking for £200,000 for funding, and a single pair will cost you a £69 pledge. It's a bit of a gamble, given that the sound quality and solar charging efficacy remain untested. Still. Headphones that juice your phone, which is getting sapped because you're using Spotify on 3G anyway, is perhaps the best-yet solar application on consumer goods. If they work, they're a no-brainer. 

A harder sell, but maybe a more interesting bit of design art, is the solar bikini. Andrew Schneider built the Solar Coterie a couple years back as an project while still a student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He's since begun taking custom orders for the product for a reported $200 a piece.

These too channel power to your devices via a fully functional USB port—which Schneider says is fully waterproof, provided you unplug before you jump in the pool. Knowing as I do very little about bikinis and fashion in general, I can't say whether many would wear this, beyond green chic folks, future fiends and the hack-minded. Personally, I'm all for the flagrant solar-stitching, the pure-PV look, but I've also been wearing the same pair of dirty jeans for about a week straight, so who knows.

The point is, the needle is moving. Denim and cotton rule now, but photovoltaics and thin-film solar are both ripe for mass experimentation. The price of solar manufacturing is falling. Wearable solar tendrils are worming their way into the mainstream, and why not? More of us bike or walk to work, under that great photon-fire of the sun, and more of us have iPhones to charge, so.

It's not unreasonable to assume that our clothes will soon in some way harness the sun power they're soaking up anyway. Solar product design is creeping towards something resembling elegance, too, which is the way it tends to happen when we're talking about the future.