Solar technology innovator Pi Energy is laying the groundwork for its day in the sun. Last month, the company announced two partnerships for its Pilot Deployment Program that will test PI’s flexible and more sustainable nanofilm solar panels.
Pi Energy’s Pilot Deployment Program is the company’s first step in commercializing of next-generation photovoltaic (PV) cell technology. The proprietary technology, based on nanofilm solar cell innovation, uses ultrathin silicon, enabling low-cost installation of solar modules that are designed to be lightweight, flexible, nontoxic and easy to install on most surfaces.
“Our goal is to make [solar] a lot better – cheaper, easier to deploy and more than anything, globally scalable, which means it has to be cheap, cheap, cheap and sustainable with earth-abundant materials,” said Pi Energy board member and co-founder David Andresen.
Solving Solar’s Challenges
Andresen said Pi Energy’s mission is to solve for the solar industry’s biggest challenges – cost and sustainability. Currently, Andresen said, producing solar is a complex process that requires abundant energy, often supplied by coal power plants.
“Last fall there were floods in Xianzhi province in China, flooded a lot of coal mines,” he said. “The result was polysilicon production stopped – no coal, no solar.”
The high-energy process of producing today’s PV solar – melting down quartz crystals and in some cases rare earth minerals to at temperatures upward of 3,000 degrees – has also made solar expensive, which has slowed its adoption and transition away from fossil fuels.
“I think of the entire PV market as it exists today as a beta test for the future because it currently only provides us about .4% of the energy humans consume globally,” Andresen said, adding that 96% of solar modules used today have the same structure for PV solar cells as described in the original 1941 patent.
Pi Energy has developed a new structure for solar modules that uses a deposition process and nanofabrication. Andresen likened the current way of producing solar panels to making a toothpick from a Douglas fir and Pi Energy’s approach to shaping wood pulp.
“They’re both cellulosic material but one is subtractive and multi-step and high energy; ours is very simple,” he said.
Pi Energy’s “nanofilm” structure is thinner and flexible and requires only 1% of the material silicon needed for traditional PV solar panels. The amount of energy needed is similarly reduced.
“Instead of having an environmental impact which is alarming to a lot of us who care about the sustainability of energy transition, you have something that is orders of magnitude below – 100 times less on the amount of materials you’re using,” Andresen said. “And because you’re sourcing it from much less impactful sources at far lower temperatures and it’s a single process instead of four, very quickly you realized this is much better.”
Pi Energy’s nanofilm panels are light and flexible – also making them much less expensive to install. The light weight and flexibility of PI Energy’s solar panels also allows them to be attached to any surface, including the exterior surface of vehicles.
On June 9, PI Energy entered into an agreement with “renewable delivery” company GoFor Industries, Inc. to install solar on its fleet of electric vehicles.
“We are thrilled to partner with GoFor, which is leading a better and cleaner way of providing sustainable delivery services,” said Pi Energy CEO Phil Layton.
Gofor, which serves over 120 metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada, is a market leader in sustainable logistics, combining customer-focused delivery services and electric vehicle fleets. The company’s collaboration with Pi Energy includes installation and performance evaluation, power generation and optimization, and pilot demonstration of PI Energy’s solar photovoltaic technology.
“We believe Pi Energy’s technology can provide new ways of improving our delivery performance for our customers, which makes our business even more sustainable and efficient, while also lowering the total cost of ownership for EVs,” said Ian Gardner, CEO of GoFor. “Charging electric vehicles with surface integrated solar PV allows us to drive further and cleaner while reducing the necessity and frequency of having to recharge the EV while it’s on route doing a delivery.”
Solar for Affordable Housing
On June 17 Pi Energy announced another partnership with Acento Real Estate Partners to install solar on its buildings across the U.S.
“Acento’s participation in Pi Energy’s Pilot Deployment Program is aligned with our low-carbon infrastructure and social impact goals, so that we can have onsite electrical power from otherwise unused surfaces, from our buildings, parking areas and surrounding walls,” said Andrés González, CEO of Acento. “Enhancing our real estate portfolio’s energy resilience and sustainability is even more attractive with a cost-competitive approach to solar energy.”
Andresen said Pi Energy’s ideal partners are ones “interested in breaking the mold of how PV is installed today.”
In addition to looking for companies like Acento willing to cover walls and fences with solar panels, Pi Energy is also looking for the right partners to manufacture its nanofilm solar modules. Currently, the company has contracted a fabrication facility in Arizona to produce its panels for the Pilot Program, but as the company scales it will likely partner with more production facilities to meet demand.
“Our goal is to partner with companies that can manufacture for the global market and distribute to these markets,” Andresen said.
CEO: Phil Layton
Business: Lightweight, non-toxic, flexible solar panels
Headquarters: San Diego
Revenue: Raised over $18 million in capital
Notable: Pi Energy solar modules are made with only 1% of the silicon used in traditional solar panels