Secret Of Patagonia’s New See-Through Solar Windows Is Revealed

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Word has slipped out that Patagonia is demonstrating a new, fully transparent solar window. That’s a neat trick, considering that it’s impossible to see through a normal solar panel. The manufacturer behind the new solar technology was a mystery because the scoop was hidden behind a paywall when first reported by The Wall Street Journal on December 27. Nevertheless, CleanTechnica sniffed it out, and it’s…not who we thought it was!

New Solar Windows For Patagonia, From Next Energy Technologies

Turning glass into an invisible solar energy harvester really is a game-changer. Solarized glass transforms windows, doors, and glass-walled buildings into renewable energy power stations, while enabling interior spaces to continue taking advantage of daylight.

Conventional silicon solar cells are too dense to do the trick. The difference is new organic thin film technology, which can be sprayed or panted onto different surfaces. A nano-thin coating can enable windows to pass daylight through while converting solar energy to electricity.

If you’re wondering why see-through solar windows are only just hitting the market, that’s a good question. Tinted or semi-transparent thin film solar cells emerged several years ago. Engineering an effective balance of solar conversion efficiency with see-through invisibility is a next-level challenge.

In addition, the manufacturing process can be tricky. Although glass appears smooth to the eye, a varying degree of distortion is always present, complicating the effort to achieve a functional thin film coating.

CleanTechnica took a stab at guessing the name of Patagonia’s solar window supplier earlier this week and came up short. It was a pretty good guess, but it was not the right guess. We reached out to Patagonia by email and they let us in on the secret. The actual manufacturer of the new solar windows is the California company NEXT Energy Technologies.

The windows are earmarked for Patagonia headquarters in California. Despite getting the early scoop, The Wall Street Journal didn’t seem too convinced that new transparent photovoltaic technology is street-ready.

“The outdoor-clothing retailer is one of the first companies to test solar-panel windows, a new and largely unproven technology,” WSJ observed at the top of an article dated December 27. The rest disappeared under the paywall.

Are Solar Windows Really Unproven?

As a descriptor for transparent solar windows, “new” is on point. “Largely unproven,” however, misses the mark, especially where startups like NEXT are concerned.

The Energy Department included NEXT in its pool of “Technology to Market 3” awardees five years ago, on the basis of the company’s prospects for bringing see-through solar glass to market.  The award program is part of the Obama-era SunShot initiative, designed to kickstart “highly impactful solar energy technologies.”

“Selected projects focus on research to address early-stage, pre-commercial risks so that those projects can subsequently attract private follow-on funding,” the Energy Department explained.

“At a high level, T2M3 projects develop products to leverage new and emerging technologies, increase system values while reducing hardware costs, improve business operational efficiency, expand the investor pool for project development, and increase consumer access to solar,” they added.

NEXT received an award of $2,500,000 to combine its organic thin film solution with commercial glass windows. The company was tasked with bringing its earlier-stage prototype up to the level of a “fully developed prototype that has passed initial reliability and certification testing and is ready to begin pilot manufacturing.”

The award also specified that the module size had to scale up, requiring the use of slot-die coating. The earlier prototypes were smaller, spin-coated modules. Both of these process are in common use, but slot-die is known for scalability as well as waste minimization and low costs.

Solar Windows: Where Are They Now?

So far, all seems to have gone according to the T2M3 financial plan. In June of 2021, NEXT announced that it netted a haul of $13.4 million for its Series C round of funding.

NEXT pointed out that the Series C round was strategically planned to connect the company with global frontrunners in the architectural glass and construction industries, among others.

“Proceeds from this round of financing are already accelerating the transition to large-area coating for commercialization, pilot installations, durability testing, and industry certification, in preparation for use by leading window manufacturers,” NEXT stated.

The round was lead by Alon Blue Square Israel, Ltd. group and GEAR Innovation Network, a branch of the diversified mining group Golden Energy and Resources Ltd., which in turn is part of Sinar Mas Group. Also leading the round was the architectural glass company Viracon, a subsidiary of the global firm Apogee Enterprises. Another participant was Rincon Advisors, which describes itself as a vertically integrated real estate investment management firm.

If see-through solar windows are still “largely unproven,” these investors are in for an unexpected and unwelcome surprise. However, it appears that everyone expects the proof to be in the pudding.

“The company’s new strategic investors provide NEXT with broad access and insight into the global commercial real estate market and architecture, engineering and construction communities,” Next Energy elaborated. “Investment in NEXT will provide them access to a clear and powerful energy solution that will power our buildings and protect our planet.”

Next Steps For The Window Of The Future

As further proof that the technology has wings, last year Next Energy joined 24 other startups selected for a California Energy Commission program under the CalTestBed Initiative. Led by the clean tech accelerator New Energy Nexus, the program dovetails with the Energy Department’s efforts to mainstream new clean technology as quickly as possible. The agency’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a CalTestBed partner along with the University of California Office of the President.

“As a participant, NEXT is receiving up to $300,000 in third-party testing to demonstrate and enhance the reliability of the company’s organic photovoltaic modules with experts at UC Santa Barbara’s Optical Characterization facility in Santa Barbara, CA,” NEXT explained, adding that “the program also provides the opportunity to develop commercialization partners and engage potential customers.”

All seems to have gone according to that plan, too. Last April, NEXT announced a demonstration of its PC Prototype Window Wall at the California headquarters of Walters & Wolf, the company’s manufacturing and glazing partner. The firm Glassfab Tempering Services also collaborated on the project.

“Our team sees building-integrated photovoltaics, such as NEXT’s window coating technology, as the next major evolution in building science,” said the president of Walters & Wolf, Nick Kocelj.

As for Patagonia, the company is well known as an early adopter and bar-setter for ESG (environment, social, governance) business principles. Patagonia’s extensive track record on solar energy provides  NEXT and its partners with a high profile showcase for the bottom line value of investing in clean power.

It’s almost as if NEXT deliberately enlisted Patagonia to show that nothing can stop ESG investing, no matter what the obstacles the anti-ESG faction throws in the way. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Photo (cropped): Solar windows turn ordinary glass-walled buildings into solar power generators (courtesy of NEXT).

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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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