Energy Efficient, Transparent Solar Windows: You Really Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

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More than 20 billion square feet of windows are installed every year, and the leading firm Andersen Corporation apparently plans to make some of those billions into energy efficient, transparent solar energy generators that could kick the pace of global energy decarbonization into high gear. The well-known maker of windows and doors just chipped in for a $30 million Series B funding round that will help push the not-so-well-known transparent solar innovator Ubiquitous Energy out of the startup shadows and into the bright sunshine of the global building industries marketplace.

Ubiquitous Energy Hearts Transparent Solar Windows

The idea of transforming windows into fully transparent, see-through PV powerhouses has allured researchers for years. Conventional solar panels block the sun, so that’s out. Thin film PV technology offers an alternative route, but the problem is squeezing out enough clean kilowatts to make the endeavor worthwhile. Thin film is transparent, but overall the technology is not as efficient as conventional photovoltaic panels.

Ubiquitous Energy appears to have solved the riddle with its proprietary transparent solar UE Power™ technology. The key breakthrough is a formula that enables visible light to pass through, while reserving invisible light at both ends of the spectrum to generate electricity.

The company has been hammering away in the lab for the past 10 years and it finally sailed onto the CleanTechnica radar last November, after it installed 100 square feet of its new transparent solar panels above the main entrance to the building of the Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building at Michigan State University.

Andersen Corporation Hearts Energy Efficiency

That MSU project is small potatoes compared to 20 billion square feet, but it was enough to get the attention of Andersen Corporation. The 115-year-old firm is known more for its attention to style, but building decor is not the whole story. Energy efficiency is also a focus of innovation at the company, and energy efficiency is the unsung hero of the decarbonization movement.

Back in 1998, Anderson hopped on board the federal Energy Star® energy efficiency awards initiative. Energy Star is best known for its promotion of energy efficient light bulbs and appliances, and 1998 was the first year that it recognized energy efficiency in windows. too.

All that hard work paid off, and last April Anderson won an Energy Star Partner of the Year Sustained Excellence Award — but not for the first time.

“Andersen has been an ENERGY STAR partner since the Windows program began in 1998 and was the first window manufacturer awarded the ENERGY STAR National Window Partner of the Year in 1999. This is Andersen’s seventh Sustained Excellence Award and the 12th time the company has been recognized by the ENERGY STAR® program,” Andersen explained in a celebratory press release dated April 13, 2021.

“Andersen® products play an important role in contributing to energy-efficient homes and buildings,” the company adds. “This month, the company expanded production of the 100 Series, one of its fastest growing product lines and one with many glass options that make them ENERGY STAR certified.”

As for what Sustained Excellence entails, Andersen is happy to tell you that “winners are part of a distinguished group that has made a long-term commitment to fighting climate change and protecting public health through energy efficiency.”

Transparent Solar Windows: But What Does This All Mean?

All of this means that fossil energy stakeholders could lose their grip on the global economy more quickly than expected. Ubiquitous Energy doesn’t expect that windows can get the job done alone, but they will function alongside other clean energy solutions to push carbon out of the picture.

Some fossil stakeholders are catching on faster than others. So far the pace has been far too slow, but legacy firms like Shell (wind energy and green hydrogen) and bp (solar energy) and have been getting in position to take it to the next level — as soon as government policy makers decide to get serious about climate action, that is

That brings us to another participant in the $30 million round for Ubiquitous Energy, the Japanese firm ENEOS. Last August, ENEOS worked with Nippon Sheet Glass to install the transparent solar windows at an NSG facility in Chiba. The plan was for the installation to undergo a one-year evaluation ending in August 2022, but it seems that ENEOS has seen enough to take the plunge.

ENEOS is the biggest oil company in Japan and it also has a heavy hand in the natural gas and petrochemical business, but it also has a large and growing portfolio of utility scale PV power plants under its belt. The hookup with Ubiquitous Energy’s transparent solar panels at the NSG facility hints that ENEOS is looking at a whole ‘nother market, as industrial firms seek to decarbonize their facilities.

No, Really, What Does This Mean?

The bigger picture is a flipping of the script for the building industry. Historically, the nature of a building is to suck up energy and spit out carbon. Solar technology provides a pathway for buildings to produce their own carbon free energy. Rooftop PV panels are already mainstream, and now windows can contribute to the building-as-power-plant trend.

Last November, a new study that modeled solar adoption in Melbourne, Australia caused quite a stir when it described how “comprehensive adoption of existing rooftop PV technology alone throughout the city could radically transform Melbourne’s carbon footprint, significantly reducing its reliance on grid electricity generated by burning fossil fuels,” and that “further gains could be made through the widespread deployment of emerging, highly efficient ‘solar windows’ and photovoltaic technology integrated in building facades.”

According to the study, buildings in Melbourne could provide for 74% of their own electricity when fully decked out with rooftop and window PV, along with other energy efficiency measures.

That could be an underestimate, as a flood of new building integrated PV technology enters the market. Our friends over at Market Watch recently took note of an analysis that identifies roofing materials as a key growth area, with window glass and facade materials also coming on strong.

The report zeroed in on the potential for commercial building to drive the trend.

“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. 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,” noted Market Watch.

As the saying goes, money talks. Building integrated solar provides businesses with new bottom line opportunities to leverage their properties to attract a new generation of sustainability-focused consumers, and that leaves little space for fossil energy to maneuver.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Transparent PV window glass from Ubiquitous Energy (video screenshot via MSU).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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