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The idea of turning skyscrapers into solar farms gets another day in the sun

Imagine if all of the skyline defining office towers and high rises in a city were solar farms, where every windowpane was an energy-generating device capturing the sunlight and turning it into electricity.

The idea, first proposed about a decade ago during the height of a boom in activity around renewable energy innovation, is now getting a renaissance thanks to companies like the material science startup Ubiquitous Energy.

Last week the company said it had raised $30 million from one of America's leading window and door manufacturers, Andersen Corporation, to begin the process of manufacturing its energy harvesting windows.

Ubiquitous Energy is reviving an old idea of using nanoparticle-sized semiconducting coating materials to convert sunlight into electricity that's connected to a building's electrical systems through tiny wires along the glass.

The notion of using thin-film coatings on windows to generate energy has lingered for over a decade with businesses like Nanosolar, Heliovolt, Miasolé and several others raising hundreds of millions to commercialize the technology.

They ultimately failed.

But 2022 isn't 2018 and the efficiencies that Ubiquitous Solar is able to achieve with its products -- along with the potential for its... well... ubiquitous deployment is giving some investors a reason to believe.

“Ubiquitous Energy’s transparent photovoltaic technology is revolutionary and represents a new horizon for the [window] industry,” said Jay Lund, chairman and chief executive officer, Andersen Corporation, in a statement.

Ubiquitous Energy panels installed on Michigan State University's campus. Image Credit: MSU Today

Ubiquitous windows are already competing on functionality, according to Andersen, but the company's technology still needs to be a bit more competitive when it comes to pricing and the conversion efficiencies it gets on its cells.

“While there are competing solar window technologies under development, most have tradeoffs in transparency, color, viewing area obstruction, haze, or energy efficiency, making it challenging for consumers to accept them as alternatives to standard windows,” Andersen executives Prabhakar (KP) Karri and Karl Halling, wrote in an email quoted by CNBC about the window company's investment in Ubiquitous.

Traditional solar panels have conversion efficiencies of around 22% these days, while Ubquitous maxes out at about 10% and costs about 30% more than traditional windows.

The company estimates that payback on installation for customers could be in the three-to-five year timeframe. In some ways, the Ubiquitous is in a race against the utility industry and its own solar generation ambitions. If large scale renewable power projects and community solar projects can be developed quickly -- demand for thin film solar technology or building integrated solar will likely decrease.

“My take is that BIPV isn’t going to make it on pure economics alone,” Ravi Manghani, Wood Mackenzie’s head of solar research, told Greentech Media in a 2020 report on building-integrated photovoltaics. “So, it will need the right kind of applications where traditional solar modules don’t work," such as urban environments or areas with land-use restrictions. "None of these limits are going to be significant [enough] for BIPV commercialization, not in the next decade.”

Meanwhile, other experts like Charlie Ćurčija, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who works on building technologies, told Greentech Media that BIPV would take closer to 20 to 30 years to become mainstream.

Susan Stone, the chief executive officer at Ubiquitous is unfazed by the naysayers.

“Since our technology’s inception at MIT & MSU over 10 years ago to now, looking towards the future, we are committed to making an enormous impact environmentally," said Susan Stone, Ubiquitous Energy’s CEO. "This latest funding round will help expand what’s possible in a renewable energy portfolio and change the way the world utilizes solar power – one window at a time.”


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