The Silicon Valley startup aims to convert traditional glass panes into sleek and transparent solar devices.
Commercial buildings are a leading source of energy consumption, accounting for nearly 40% of global carbon (CO2) emissions, according to a UN Environment and International Energy Agency Global Status Report. As more and more countries join the net-zero pledge, the global building sector will play an outsized role in determining whether humans succeed in keeping the feared 1.5°C rise at bay.
Enter Ubiquitous Energy, the world’s first truly transparent solar technology company. Founded in 2011 by researchers at MIT and Michigan State, the solar window startup is on a quest to revolutionize the future of the fenestration industry with its clear, electricity-generating solar coatings for commercial and residential properties.
The material science startup specializes in creating fully transparent photovoltaic glass films for windows. Although other rival solar surface products exist, Ubiquitous Energy’s technology is the only one that can harness electricity with its nanometers-thick coating of semiconducting materials while remaining essentially invisible. The vertical solar panels make for a sustainable and attractive alternative to regular glass windows.
“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,” wrote Andersen Corporation executives Prabhakar (KP) Karri and Karl Halling in an email to CNBC.
“They have to look indistinguishable from traditional windows, or we won’t see mass deployment,” said Ubiquitous Energy CEO Susan Stone. “Aesthetics is our guiding light.”
The panels have a current energy efficiency of 10%, or “about half of conventional solar,” she added. The energy limitations stem in large part from the nature of the product, which stands vertically, while solar panels lie horizontally, enabling them to absorb more direct sunlight.
However, Stone said the windows can theoretically attain two-thirds the potential efficiency of traditional solar panels, which max out at about 22%.
“We enable a surface that wasn’t generating power already to generate electricity,” she noted. “The glass has always been passive, and we’re making it active here.”
The pre-revenue company recently closed a $30 million Series B investment round where it raised capital from major players in the industry, including from commercial window and door manufacturing giant Andersen Corporation. The firm has amassed a total of $70 million in funding to date, positioning it for peak performance as the company transitions from design and development to launch its new products to market.
Ubiquitous Energy plans to scale up in just two years, with the site selection for its first high-output manufacturing plant already in motion, according to its website.
“Ubiquitous Energy’s transparent photovoltaic technology is revolutionary and represents a new horizon for the fenestration industry,” said chairman and chief executive officer of Andersen Corporation Jay Lund regarding the investment, according to BusinessWire. “As America’s premier window and patio door manufacturer, Andersen is excited to support the work of Ubiquitous Energy to bring solar power into homes and commercial buildings through windows and doors, creating new opportunities for energy efficiency, cost savings and smart home integrations that will both delight homeowners and contribute to a healthier planet.”
With over 20 billion square feet of windows installed in commercial and residential buildings every year, broad-based adoption of Ubiquitous Energy’s photovoltaic technology has the potential to offset an estimated 10% of worldwide CO2 emissions, BusinessWire reported. Additionally, the company’s patented solar surfaces can help homeowners and businesses optimize energy savings and reduce costs.
“We can turn skyscrapers into vertical solar farms,” Stone said with regard to the company’s floor to ceiling glass.
The world’s first invisible electricity-generating window does come with a hefty price tag, costing about 30% more than your standard glass window. However, Ubiquitous and its investors believe the ever-growing climate threat will lead consumers and organizations into making the initial investment.
“The growing awareness about the long-term cost availed by the customer in the form of energy efficiency and low maintenance cost of the system has been increasing the commercial demand,” noted MarketWatch in November about the industry’s growth opportunities.
“The conversion of conventional building material to building-integrated photovoltaic material increases the prestige and value of the building, which is further expected to propel the market growth in the years to come.”
Andersen is particularly interested in bringing the product to the home residential market, where there is ample opportunity for wide-scale deployment. The emerging solar window company hopes to have one billion square feet of its patented glass installed worldwide by 2050, Stone said.
“Ubiquitous Energy’s transparent solar products can bring renewable energy to every surface around the globe, and we look forward to working with the team as they increase solar adoption in the U.S. and beyond,” wrote executive officer Yaz Yazaki of ENEOS, another notable Series B investor and leader in the integrated energy sector.
With its seamless blend of aesthetics and sustainability, the company’s next-generation solar panels can turn everyday ambient surfaces into critical tools for achieving net-zero.
Nathalie Voit is a freelance content creator and a graduate of the University of Florida. She is an alumni of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.