PI Energy is developing a new solar photovoltaic (PV) technology to open up new markets for solar energy. Most current PV is installed on solar farms or some type of weight-bearing roof. Our PV materials are designed to be wrapped around any surface, making previously impractical surfaces available for solar energy collection, including moving objects like electric buses, electric delivery vehicles, and electric cars; and non-traditional stationary objects like any surface on the exterior of buildings or low weight-bearing roofs that previously weren’t available because of the rigged structure of solar PV. This approach is possible by the collective properties of the Company’s proprietary nanofilm: non-toxic, flexible, durable, and low cost installation.

One exciting market is the developing world, where adoption rates are extremely low but the distributed nature of solar power would be more beneficial, since large conventional electric grids are difficult to deploy and costly to maintain.

The challenge for us is that we are still in development, or pre-commercial. Funding is difficult for pre-commercial solar PV technology companies as basic research dollars are typically awarded to very early University stage research (which is geared toward PhD students delivering a thesis and graduating). This develops some interesting projects, but it is more difficult for larger projects that require collaboration across many disciplinary fields. Getting a real product out to market requires multidisciplinary effort across both science and engineering, which costs money for salaries and equipment. Typically, Government agencies should be funding this, especially in solar PV, but there is a perception that solar PV is “good enough” and is improving. The adoption rate would suggest otherwise: the worldwide adoption of solar PV is still only around 1%, and most of the increases have been in the developed world limited to residential rooftops (for those who can afford it) and solar farms. To really make an impact requires expanding the markets, especially into the developing world, where many of the infrastructure surfaces are not conducive to existing solar PV panels.

Government agencies like NSF, DoE and DoD typically will fund projects that are “proven” or sufficiently far enough along that they can go commercial in a relatively short period of time, eliminating most of the technical risk. Additionally, this funding is typically limited for new solar PV technology, and other investors have the same low appetite for technical risk.

This “valley of death” means that without new concepts being funded beyond simple University laboratory experiments, we are missing out on some promising technology that could expand how we use renewable energy.  In a mature technical field, the experts will only imagine what is known, missing out on new ways to think about what is possible.

The classic demonstration of this was the quote from Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of US patent office, in 1899: “Everything that can be invented, has been invented.”

We are trying to change the way solar is deployed to be closer to the source of demand and to surfaces previously unavailable, with the goal of expanding the ways solar can be adopted worldwide.