It’s not often this job takes me to places that are the envy of my mother, but yesterday was quite an exception. As I strolled through the guarded gates of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and past, among others, the Irish Sky Garden, I counted myself lucky to gain entry to the highly prestigious sold-out event. But I wasn’t there, unlike my envious mother would have been, to see the flowers. I was there to admire my passion: solar power.

The SKYShades Garden: Powered by Light, by Marney Hall, is an inspiring exhibit in that it displays what I would call ‘proper garden features’ (although I’m no Alan Titchmarsh) including woodland plants, herbs and annuals; but it also features the latest in solar power technology.

Some of you may now be imagining a beautiful woodland scene complete with rather obvious photovoltaic panels, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. Yet in the images below you can clearly see that every effort was made to integrate this thin-film technology into the building’s structure in the most aesthetic fashion. In fact, it’s almost invisible.

After spending a little time admiring the garden, I sat down with the Managing Director of SKYShades UK, Dr Robert Carpenter, to hear more about what the company is all about, how the product works in the garden environment and what Chelsea can do to help the recognition of solar power in the UK.

Rob first became interested in membrane structures and the use of interesting structural shapes in architecture when he was helping out as site and production manager at the Cambridge Folk Festival during his 15 years of medical research at Cambridge University. Coupling this new-found enthusiasm with an interest in the environment Rob created Inside2Outside, which was then followed by the formation of sister company SKYShades UK.

The driving force behind SKYShades, explains Rob, was to create a product that was cost-effective, environmentally friendly and suitable for use with membrane structures which can not always take heavy panels. The solar solution utilised by SKYShades is capable of all three, and is produced by thin-film specialist Konarka, who agreed to allow Rob market its product under the SKYShades UK branding.

When I questioned Rob about the arguments against thin-film in the UK, as it is currently less efficient than the more common crystalline version of this technology, he was quick to remind me of its benefits.

“Our product is really for people with large spaces, such as schools, agricultural buildings or big warehouse roofs, and especially for surfaces which cannot take heavy loads. Additionally of course, for buildings without too great an angle, the panels can be installed on the face of the roof,” he explained.

So, although it may not be as efficient as its crystalline counterpart, thin-film PV still works in the UK, and offers those who would otherwise have to discount it the opportunity to install it.

Since Rob mentioned that the SKYShades product was perfect for larger-scale installations I took the opportunity to move on to a more sensitive topic, and asked Rob what he thought about what was currently going on in Government. I wanted to find out what he thought about the decision to cut the tariff, and how this would affect his business.

“Well, we while must remember that 50kW isn’t a tiny system, I really do think that the Government has got it wrong. It [Government] should be encouraging people to generate and use a certain amount of renewable power themselves, and by cutting the rates by so much Government threatens this, and that’s a great shame,” said Rob.

“Personally, I think 5MW farms in green fields that could also be producing food shouldn’t really be there anyway, but there’s no reason why big roofs doing nothing shouldn’t be covered in solar panels.”

Rob also said that if the tariff is cut considerably for systems over 50kW it won’t affect SKYShades too much, as the company has already considered alternatives. “Those who were going to be over 50kW have already found a way,” he explained. “They had to.”

As the interview came to a close, and we made our way back to the main walkway, I discussed with Rob how great it is to see solar power at such a high-profile UK event. SKYShades chose to sponsor the garden at Chelsea Flower Show in order to get word out there, and what a brilliant platform it is. The company has already received considerable interest – even before the show began, and the many thousands of visitors expected at the event will see with their own eyes that solar does not just take the form of panels placed on top of a roof – it can also be aesthetic and lightweight at the same time as providing free, renewable electricity.

As we returned to the garden, the SKYShades team was preparing for the arrival of Sir Terry Pratchett, who was to officially open the garden with Ashley Leiman OBE and Rob.

In true renewable fashion, the plants featured in the SKYShades Garden will be donated to sister company Inside2Outside, which will award them as prizes in its 2011 National School Competition. The trees will be donated to local charities in London.

Complete garden photos by Emma Hughes