One of the developments I'll be watching during 2011 is the extent to which solar technology can break out of its design mold -- that of dozens of bulky panels arrayed across a roof, parking lot or field -- and morph into other formats that are integrated directly into buildings.
Here's just one leading indicator: this week, Soladigm of Milpitas, Calif., which makes electrochromic "smart" windows that brighten or darken according to your preferred temperature settings, garner $30 million in venture funding. That's after collecting a previous $57 million, as well as some loans from the state of Mississippi.
Technically speaking, what Soladigm is developing are not solar windows. They are windows that are solar-sensitive. But the idea that solar technology could be embedded into traditional building design and products is one that intrigues me. It's one reason that I recently interviewed an emerging player in that space, Israel-born start-up Pythagoras Solar, about what is officially called the building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) technology sector.
According to the Department of Energy, the market for BIPV glass already is $1 billion, with an anticipated growth rate of 20 percent. Advances in this space will be critical for the advancement of the net-zero energy building movement.
There are countless reasons why an integrated approach to solar makes sense, not the least of which is the fact that there isn't enough roof space to handle the solar panels needed for adequate generation. What's more, people like my husband (who is into home design and building renovation) aren't exactly crazy about the aesthetics of the panel approach.
Udi Paret, vice president of business development and marketing for Pythagoras Solar, says his company's solar windows and skylights provide a unique combination of energy-efficiency elements -- by tinting for the sake of climate control -- and generation capabilities that help buildings move toward self-power status. (I could riff about self-empowerment here, but I will refrain.)
The first major installation of the Pythagoras Solar technology is a curtain wall on Oracle's building in Israel and the company also is doing work in China. Its first U.S. project began in early November, as Pythagoras works on improving the economic viability of its technology, Paret says. "Our barrier to market really has to do more with the stage of our company," he says. "We have a lot of proof as to what we need to do in terms of these first implementations." Pythagoras Solar is three years old; the last note about funding relates to a $10 million series A venture round from Cleantech Ventures, Pitango Venture Capital and Evergreen Venture Partners in 2008.
For me, the BIPV approach makes sense, as does the Pythagoras Solar decision to create an advisory board composed to green building experts including Pamela Samuels, who has connections with major New York development firms, and Rob Watson, who was one of the people instrumental in the development of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for the U.S. Green Building Council.
Incidentally, as one final aside, one of Pythagoras Solar's founders, Gonen Fink, was one of the first employees at Check Point Software Technologies, and he was instrumental in helping take that company from start-up to mainstream. So you might imagine that he has some experience in taking technology mainstream.