How startups help overcome key challenges in solar energy

By Katerina Mansour - 04 August 2021

The use of solar energy has been steadily rising worldwide. The solar energy market was valued at $50 billion in 2019 and is expected to be worth $200 billion by 2026, growing at a 20% CAGR from 2020 to 2026. While the process has been slow, laws and regulations are increasingly encouraging the transition to renewable energy.

Numerous countries have set goals for themselves and made commitments to transition towards clean energy and more sustainability. For example, the UK hopes to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Sweden aims to produce 100% clean energy by 2040. Of course, 193 countries also adopted the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. These include:

  • Affordable and clean energy
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Climate action

However, as expected, transitioning towards renewable energy comes with challenges. In this article, we’ll analyse solar energy trends and discuss some of the ways startups help overcome key challenges in its adoption.

Tackling concerns over efficiency

The efficiency of solar panels can vary due to many factors: available sunlight, excess heat, dirt, dust, the design and the materials of the panels… Researchers and industry players cite varying figures with regards to the average solar panel’s efficiency. The estimates usually range from 10 to 22%.

In fact, the Shockley-Queisser limit states the maximum theoretical efficiency of solar conversion for a single p-n junction photovoltaic cell is 33.7% under typical sunlight conditions. Scientists have explored multiple ways of tackling this issue, such as the use of multi-junction photovoltaic cells. But the need to lead such research just goes to show that solar panels do come with limitations.

Scientists, researchers and engineers worldwide have been trying to break records to improve the efficiency of these panels. However, achieving 100% energy conversion simply isn’t possible. Of course, startups are among the many pioneers out there trying to boost efficiency as much as possible.

Rated startup highlights

Rated startup Pellucere develops advanced optical coatings. The startup’s flagship product, MoreSun, is a proprietary solar coating and application system that adds an anti-reflective and anti-soiling silica shield to solar panels. In-field testing of the startup’s solution showed energy gains ranging from 3,5% to 4,1%.

Another note-worthy startup in our database is Solar Bankers, which develops a holographic photovoltaic foil. The film separates light into different wavelengths and keeps only those that are necessary for energy production. The others are diffracted to avoid overheating. The product also reduces sand and dust sedimentation. All of these properties lead to the increased efficiency of solar panels.

Overcoming fears about reliability

Closely linked to the issue of efficiency is the reliability of solar panels. By definition, they depend on sunlight to function. As such, any changes in the availability and intensity of sunlight has an impact. Nighttime, overcast weather and storms can therefore become a challenge.

Nevertheless, technology has been tackling this issue with battery storage options for off-grid systems. By storing excess solar energy in batteries, energy can continue to be distributed when there is no sun to feed the panels. It’s worth noting this process is already available with on-grid systems.

Overall, many feel the issue of reliability won’t be long-lasting given the advances in storage options and the lowering cost of these solutions. Still, it’s one of the most common concerns when discussing the adoption of solar energy.

Rated startup highlights

Pika Energy’s battery storage solution

Pika Energy offers an end-to-end platform for energy management and storage. The startup’s Islanding Inverter ensures an efficient flow of energy between the smart battery, solar cells and building, enabling rate arbitrage. The battery is resilient against environmental events that shut down the electrical supply. Users benefit from a web and mobile application to view information regarding the system/household’s energy usage. Pika Energy also ranked among the top 5% of startups rated by Early Metrics in 2019.

In the same market segment, Kemiwatt sells a flow battery that can store electricity from renewable sources. This liquid battery is made of a non-corrosive and biodegradable electrolyte that stores and then releases energy. It allows industrial companies and local authorities to store energy for longer durations. The battery was initially developed at the University of Rennes 1 and Kemiwatt uses the patent held by SATT Ouest Valorisation.

Avoiding shape, size and location issues

There are several issues related to the installation area of solar panels. They can take up an incredible amount of space and their shape can limit your options of where to install them.

Roofs are the go-to location for solar panel installation, especially in residential and/or urban areas. However, not all roofs are compatible with the typical size and shape of solar panels. Furthermore, for certain buildings (large apartment complexes, high-rises, etc.) the roof won’t provide enough space for the number of solar panels needed.

When the roof isn’t an option for solar panels, placement on facades or on the ground can be considered. But then another issue arises: many find solar panels unattractive, which is a rather important factor to consider in real estate. Startups have been developing solutions for all of these installation issues, to help render solar panels more adaptable to different situations.

Rated startup highlights

Among our highly rated startups, SolarGaps develops smart solar blinds for households and commercial buildings to use window areas to generate green energy. The startup’s blinds automatically track the sun to adjust their angle. The blinds generate energy which is then converted and sent to the grid. The energy can then be used to power appliances within the building.

Solaxess project in Männedorf, Switzerland

Another rated startup worth noting is Solaxess. It develops white and coloured films to make photovoltaic modules more aesthetically pleasing. Using a mix of metallic and polymer layers, the nanotechnology films cover the surface of dark blue panels (due to silicon) and allow light to go through so that energy keeps being produced. Thanks to this solution, building facades can integrate solar panels without negatively affecting the building’s appeal.

Finally, Naked Energy designs solar thermal collectors that generate more energy and use less space than traditional generators – at a lower cost. Naked Energy’s product, Virtu PVT, is a patented modular hybrid solar panel that generates both electricity and heat for commercial and residential applications.

Market appetite for solar energy startups

Despite the challenges mentioned above, solar energy is one of the most viable options for renewable energy. Players in this market are increasingly turning to startups for innovative solutions to improve efficiency, reliability and installation issues.

Indeed, funding opportunities are growing for startups in this space. Investors have taken to creating funds that back startups in this field. Earlier this year, Energy Transition Ventures announced a $75m fund for startups helping the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. Furthermore, startups are closing increasingly large funding rounds. In May 2021, Aurora Solar, a publisher of solar design software, reached a $2bn valuation through a $250m Series C funding round. Finally, global investments highlight how widespread the shift to renewable energy is: global investments in solar energy reached $141bn in 2019.

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