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Practical Magic

Let’s talk integrated photovoltaics

Meet Ambient Photonics, which just raised $30 million to produce low-light solar cells that can harvest energy from both natural and artificial sources.

Pvilion military tent

The U.S. Air Force is testing 40 of Pvilions integrated-solar military tent designs in a wide variety of geographies, including Alaska and New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Pvilion

One of my favorite summer-time gadgets is the bouquet of solar lights and lanterns scattered in my backyard, where I often retreat with my laptop to write on a summer’s evening. But one of my least favorite activities is replacing the rechargeable batteries they require. It’s not that I’m lazy, I cringe at the waste and carbon footprint of all those designed-to-be-disposable energy storage devices. 

Multiply that by all the millions of sensors and thermostats and remote controls and electronic labels and other internet-of-things things, and the waste scenarios are mind-boggling.

That’s why I find the $31 million Series A funding disclosure earlier this month for Ambient Photonics, which is developing low-light solar cells that can harvest energy from both natural and artificial sources, so intriguing. The company’s technology aims to eliminate disposable batteries and cut down the size of the power sources required for many connected devices that consumers and businesses have come to rely on.

The funding was led by the Amazon Climate Pledge Fund and the Ecosystem Integrity Fund, and it included both I Squared Capital and Future Shape, the investment firm founded by iPod creator Tony Fadell. The money will go toward building a production facility that is capable of producing "tens of millions" of the cells annually at an as-yet-disclosed location.

Ambient co-founder and CEO Bates Marshall said the company is also being considered for a $162 million loan guarantee under the U.S. Department’s Title XVII Loan Guarantee Program, which is intended to encourage energy innovations. If that money comes through, it will go toward a second factory, he told me. "Our supply chain is very short," he said, pointing to the company's local manufacturing footprint.

The startup, which employs about 15 people but has at least 75 job openings on its books, is focusing first on products for smart home applications such as door or window sensors, thermostats or remote controls. Its one publicly named company is Universal Electronics, which builds most of the remotes and set-top boxes on the market, Marshall said.

Another promising segment is what he described as smart retailing. Think inventory and shelving tags, Bluetooth beacons or electronic labels. "You can think of these big networks of electronic devices that are all talking to each other and adding some value," he said.

The credentials behind Ambient are noteworthy. Marshall has about 18 years of experience in the solar industry — his last position was at Huawei Technologies — and the startup is a spinoff of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. So its focus on low-impact materials is bonafide. The cells themselves are printed onto "thin, durable glass substrates."

Pvilion concept

An example of Pvilion's pop-up shelter designs. Photo courtesy of Pvilion

The integrated photovoltaic movement

The idea of integrating photovoltaic technology into stuff — mainly electronics and buildings — isn’t exactly new.

I’ll bet most of you probably had (or have) one of those solar-powered calculators or maybe even a computer keyboard. And the market for solar capacity built into glass and other construction materials, especially roofs, has gotten more attention this year with a high-profile installation at Google’s new campus and a new product line from GAF Energy, a division of North America’s largest roofing company. And a report published in early May projects global sales of $13 billion by 2028 for the building integrated photovoltaics market, up from $4.6 billion in 2021.

Building retrofits are a tough sell, but I’m fascinated by the role that integrated solar could play in smaller, pop-up structures. That’s a market being developed by Pvilion, an 11-year-old company in Brooklyn, New York, that has designed a line of solar-integrated tents, canopies, building facades and so on.

For Pvilion, the photovoltaic technology is part of a durable, waterproof, PVC-coated polyester fabric. (We didn’t discuss the chemical makeup of the material.) Co-founder and CEO Colin Touhey, an electrical engineer who started the company with an architect and structural expert, said Pvilion has experienced steady growth in supplying organizations that need mobile command centers or shelters with a power supply that could be used for Wi-Fi or charging and other specific applications. "They are designed to be temporary, but engineered to be permanent," he told me.  

These structures could be used in places such as parks (Pvilion has a contract with New York City, and several shelters are up and charging in the New York Botanical Gardens and some public libraries) or for mobile missions (the U.S. Air Force is testing 40 of its military tent designs in a wide variety of geographies, including Alaska and New Mexico).

Like with most things, the cost of a Pvilion tent kit varies depending on the features selected and the size, ranging between $7,000 and $10,000 for the frame, solar fabric, energy storage, the ballast to keep the structure secured to the ground and lighting, according to Touhey. 

Hmm, I’m in the market for some shade in my backyard.

Seriously, though. The appeal of the technologies being developed by both Ambient and Pvilion is undeniable. I believe they represent another example of the power of distributed approaches to generating renewable energy in improving energy access and community resilience.

[Interested in learning more about the electrify-everything movement? Join leaders from the private and public sectors, utilities, solution providers, investors and startups at VERGE Electrify, online July 25-26.]

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