Updated May 23 at 11:16am

Cooley sees future in solar-powered billboards

Billboards could soon boast more than advertisements for the nearest fast-food stop. Pawtucket-based Cooley Group wants very thin solar panels integrated with many of the 450,000 billboards that dot America. More

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A PBN SPECIAL SECTION: 2010 INNOVATION AWARDS

Cooley sees future in solar-powered billboards

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Billboards could soon boast more than advertisements for the nearest fast-food stop. Pawtucket-based Cooley Group wants very thin solar panels integrated with many of the 450,000 billboards that dot America.

It’s an innovative solution that holds promise to reduce costs for advertisers by lowering power bills while also trimming greenhouse gas emissions. To demonstrate the technology, Cooley and its partners erected a nearly 6,000-square-foot billboard in June in the epicenter of advertising: New York City’s Times Square.

Measuring 126 feet long and 47 feet tall, the billboard proclaims “catching some rays” with arrows pointing to the 62 solar panels and 24 thin-film photovoltaic modules. Cooley says arrows could soon point to panels on many more billboards and other products.

“We believe the opportunities for this system are virtually endless,” Cooley President Jeff Flath said. “As the evolution of TFPV (i.e. thin film photovoltaic) technology advances, the integration with our flexible composites will make our products more affordable to a larger percentage of applications.”

Unlike their rigid siblings, the flexible solar panels can be installed on curved surfaces like the billboard in Times Square that wraps around the corner of a building. Outside of billboards, Cooley is working to integrate the photovoltaic film into products ranging from military tents to commercial roofing.

And like any good innovator, Cooley knows a team approach delivers. To bring the New York City billboard to market, the Cooley Group partnered with Ricoh Americas Corp., Takara Media, Lamar Advertising and Xunlight Corp.

“Most billboards deliver a message, but this billboard is itself the message,” said Jason Dizzine, director of corporate communications for Ricoh Americas.

Founded in 1926, the Cooley Group specializes in designing high-performance flexible composite materials used worldwide in outdoor advertising, environmental containment, fuel and water tanks, medical products, roofing and other items.

The company said the jump to solar-powered billboards appeared “a natural fit” as it sought to develop lightweight and recyclable billboard materials in an effort to reduce overall environmental impact. It’s a mission that likely never occurred to the company’s founder, Arthur Cooley.

He started in business by finishing cotton cloth into awning fabric. Later the company moved to manufacturing fabrics for outdoor furniture and, during World War II, to military fabrics. The company jumped into plastics in the 1950s and 1960s and today has plants in Rhode Island and South Carolina.

“Through a history of change and challenges, Cooley has not wavered in its desire to be the very best, for its customers, employees and industry partners, and looks forward to what future challenges lie ahead with expectancy and determination,” the company said in its innovation application. •

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