Forget Tesla’s Solar Roof: This Startup Tells Us Solar Window is the Future

SolarWindow wants to change the world.

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While Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been grappling with tiles that harvest sunlight to power homes, Maryland-based SolarWindow thinks the future could come from a different angle. The company claims that, when installed on a 50-story building, its solar windows could generate up to 50 times more power than conventional roof panels.

Like Tesla, the startup finds itself navigating a big time for solar energy. In the wake of a number of hurricanes that passed through the Caribbean this fall, consumers are looking closely at solar as an alternative to current grid-based systems. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and the need to fight against climate change has led to some ingenious ideas about how to harness renewables and spark a major shift.

Inverse spoke with John A. Conklin, president and CEO of SolarWindow, to find out more.

When was your company founded, could you tell us the backstory?

SolarWindow technologies was originally founded in 1998, conducting R&D on promising technologies, prior to identifying the potential for see-through solar cells. Originally conducting R&D on nano-silicon solar cells, we determined that organic photovoltaic (OPV) solar cells had many advantages over conventional silicon-based solar and could allow us to bring our vision of electricity-generating windows to life.

Dr. Scott Hammond and Dr. Scott Mauger apply electrical-generating coatings to glass.
Dr. Scott Hammond and Dr. Scott Mauger apply electrical-generating coatings to glass.

Since beginning to work with National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2011, we have made major advancements to our technology, taking it from a proof of concept to fully functioning prototypes. Unlike typical product development, we are creating new products from scratch and essentially writing the chapter on large area commercialization of OPV devices and panels because that chapter really didn’t exist for our SolarWindow device architecture prior to our development. We are proud to have some of the most capable and respected scientific minds and engineering experts on our team.

Through our recent agreement with Triview Glass Industries, we are taking a major step forward in establishing full scale manufacturing lines and the eventual commercialization of SolarWindow products.

How do these windows work?

Our SolarWindow coatings are made up organic polymers and other transparent materials that, when combined, are referred to as an organic photovoltaic (OPV) device, which converts light energy into electricity through the photovoltaic effect. SolarWindow modules are created by applying our ultra-thin liquid layers on glass, plastics, or other suitable substrates, resulting in a transparent, electricity-generating coating.

SolarWindow modules utilize a virtually invisible system of conductive wires that help transport the electricity generated on glass and plastic surfaces to building or device wires. These ultra-thin wires are barely visible to the naked eye, allowing SolarWindow coatings to remain see-through, but greatly improve power, efficiency, and overall performance. The electricity generated would then be transferred through interconnection points on the window, a charge inverter, and ultimately into the building system, or an energy storage device, as a source of renewable electricity to be used as needed.

New York City skyscrapers, as seen through a SolarWindow panel.
New York City skyscrapers, as seen through a SolarWindow panel.

How much electricity can a typical window produce? How does it compare to a regular solar panel?

Compared to conventional rooftop solar systems, SolarWindow technology installed on a 50-story building could generate up to 50 times greater power while delivering 15 times the environmental benefits, according to company engineers and independent validated modeling than a conventional PV system installed on the limited rooftop space of that same building. Energy savings for specific buildings would be dependent on a number of factors, including size of the building, amount of glass, and location, among others.

Unlike conventional solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, SolarWindow coatings can be applied as a see-through coating, generate electricity using not only sunlight, but also artificial light, and in shaded, diffused, and reflected light conditions. SolarWindow uses earth abundant and inorganic and organic materials, which in liquid form are ideal for low-cost, high-output manufacturing.

Could these be used in car windshields? What other applications do they have?

Currently, we are developing transparent electricity-generating coatings for glass and flexible materials, focused initially on glass windows in commercial buildings, including commercial and architectural glass, retrofit and laminated veneers, and flexible glass and plastics.

SolarWindow transparent electricity-generating coatings have many potential applications for other applications include residential windows, automotive sun roofs, commercial and military aircraft, and more.

Researchers view the Colorado rocky mountains through SolarWindow glass.
Researchers view the Colorado rocky mountains through SolarWindow glass.

How will you get people using these?

We believe our electricity-generating coatings uniquely address a growing market opportunity for technologies able to generate sustainable electricity. Rising energy costs, increasing electricity consumption, and the need for a cleaner alternative to today’s non-renewable energy sources, all contribute to the growing demand for clean, renewable alternative energy sources.

The company’s strategy is based on providing a renewable energy solution to the energy demands of tall towers and skyscrapers. An estimated 500 million square feet of glass is installed on these target buildings each year in the United States alone. Information from the Department of Energy shows commercial buildings are using more than one-third of all electricity produced in the U.S.

SolarWindow transparent electricity-generating coatings could offer tall towers and skyscrapers a way of generating renewable energy where energy demand is extremely high, and the cost of real estate and other factors render surface mount solar and other renewables, impractical. Building developers and owners, and architects are searching for innovative ways to reduce energy use while offsetting energy demand. SolarWindow could provide a solution for a renewable energy source to offset building energy demand, and a quick return on investment.

What do you make of the dash to install solar in the wake of the hurricanes? Tesla is just one company undertaking a solar panel project in Puerto Rico.

In the wake of devastation from hurricanes, the installation, or repair, of solar PV systems can provide essential power while infrastructure is being rebuilt. This rebuilding will help utilize electrical infrastructure that promotes and allows further growth using grid-tied renewable energy, providing a source of clean, renewable energy for homes and businesses.

What’s on the horizon for future developments?

Our current development goals are focused on scaling up and establishing and integrating the necessary fabrication methodologies with Triview for eventual production of specialized SolarWindow products. As we continue with our development, we will assess other potential applications for our technology and product lines, such as in the automotive or aircraft industries.

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