Disrupting the solar industry – Talking perovskite with Saule Technologies
Disruption was one of the key themes at this year’s Cleantech Forum Europe in Antwerp. We explored some of the industries that are poised for change, driven by advancements in next generation technologies. One of these technologies was perovskite solar, which is seen as a wonder material that has the potential to really shake up the solar industry. Consequently, we decided to speak with a company who is very active in the space to give our readers an up to date look into the status of this upcoming technology. We caught up with Agata Kukwa, Communications Director at Saule Technologies, who shed some light on the space.
CTG: Hi Agata, can you give me a quick background on the company to date?
AK: Saule Technologies was originally founded in 2014 by three co-founders, Piotr Krych, Artur Kupczunas and Olga Malinkiewicz, who created a novel processing method for perovskite that allowed for low temperature fabrication during her PhD. The company was founded to commercialize her work.
Since this, the main focus has been on developing the technology. In 2015, we received investment from a Japanese entrepreneur and investor Hideo Sawada, and in 2016 we showcased the first ever real-life application of perovskite solar cells, showing a concept product of a functional mobile phone charger that operates under artificial light. Last year, we showcased our first flexible perovskite solar module, which was manufactured at the size of an A4 piece of paper. This year, we are working on a prototype production line which will produce the first large format modules at 1m2, which will be used in commercial construction projects, integrated into building facades.
CTG: Can you tell me a bit about the company’s business model?
AK: We are very flexible and our goal is to meet the market demands. We work on what the industry needs, not what we think they need. This involves finding industry partners from different industry groups who are provided with a licensing agreement to use the technology. Partners also help us with development specific to their market focus. In the future we plan to work with partners in other industries including those from the portable electronics, space, automotive or aviation markets.
CTG: Can you tell me about the specific solar technology that the company are currently working with, and explain why it is better than its competitors solutions?
AK: The process is an evolution of our initial technology from 2014. We use halide perovskites, which are excellent at harvesting solar, already exceeding well established thin-film technologies and traditional silicon technologies. The materials optoelectronic properties make it a versatile semiconductor, which is aided by our novel low-temperate processing method, making it compatible for flexible substrates.
The perovskite panels are produced using an inkjet printing technique, allowing the design of free-form perovskite solar modules at a low cost. The shapes and areas covered by each layer can then be customized according to the requirements of a particular application. We decided to develop a lightweight, flexible solar panel because you can ultimately have much more space to harvest solar energy compared to traditional solar wafer panels. It can be applied to many different applications and can harvest light even if the light is dispersed or indirect. In my opinion, the versatility of the technology is our biggest advantage.
CTG: What is the cost and efficiency of the solar cells by Saule Technologies?
AK: We expect the initial efficiency to be around 10% and the initial price to be around 50 EUR (58 USD) per m2. This would mean the LCOE (Levelized Cost of Electricity) would be approximately 0.05 EUR (0.05 USD) per kWh. We are aiming to increase our modules efficiency to 13-15% in due course, meanwhile, there is a lot of room for future product price reductions.
CTG: Where is the company at in terms of development stage?
AK: I would say that Saule Technologies currently sits at the crossroads somewhere between the product development and commercial deployment stages. By working with industry partners, we are helping accelerate commercial deployment across different applications at a much faster rate than if we kept the technology in the lab for another few years. For example, our new license partnership with Skanska creates specific technology development in the BIPV space.
CTG: Can you talk more about the Skanska partnership?
AK: Skanska is a sustainably minded infrastructure company. They recognized the advantages of our partnership model, utilizing our technology to be integrated into windows and facades in conjunction with new commercial building projects. Currently they are in the process of integration and deployment. Skanska knew exactly what they needed, and thanks to their expertise, we are able to learn how the technology should be for future BIPV applications. It’s an exciting project and we cannot wait to see the buildings in action!
CTG: Other early perovskite companies have been wary of scaling up manufacturing lines due to the stability issues. How has Saule Technologies overcome these problems?
AK: Overcoming the drawbacks of the technology has been a focus for a number of years and we are happy to say we have dealt with most of these. Last year, we showcased a working perovskite solar module submerged in water, which previously would have resulted in rapid efficiency degradation.
CTG: Perovskite solar has been limited for glass integration due to its semitransparent characteristics. Has this been an issue at Saule Technologies?
AK: The transparent attributes of perovskite solar are well understood by both our team and also our customers. None of our clients expect a fully transparent product. For BIPV use, full transparency hasn’t been too much of an issue as the cells are used for light filters, serving an extra purpose. However, with that said, we are of course working on increasing transparency, and are currently looking at several alternative approaches.
CTG: Is Saule Technologies thinking about any other use cases outside of BIPV, for example SAEV?
AK: The challenge of electric vehicles is that they require a lot of energy to run for typical use periods – levels of which are hard to imagine being produced entirely using on board solar, regardless of which technology is used. What I see happening is solar playing an important role in supporting batteries by powering internal electronics, such as a vehicle’s climatization system. The value here would be extending the cars battery life. We are actively looking for industry partners who would be keen to take part in product development and to guide us in the right direction.
CTG: Do you think perovskite solar technology will ultimately replace the need to charge portable smart devices?
AK: Perovskite solar technology will for sure be a substitute or support for other energy sources but it is hard to imagine that ANY solar technology will replace traditional smartphone chargers, mainly due to the fact that we need to also charge them when solar energy is not available – e.g. during night time.
CTG: What are the biggest challenges for perovskite solar?
AK: From my perspective the biggest problem at the moment is that the market is not educated enough. Industries are not yet aware about the potential of using perovskite solar cells, and the positive impact it can have. With silicon taking around 90% of the market, it’s hard to convince people to use anything different, even if the new technology works better and provides a plethora of new market opportunities. The perovskite solar industry has the important job of investing time and money to educate the market so that people know what perovskite is, what its applications are and how it can help them.
CTG: Do you think perovskite could ultimately one day replace silicon’s position in the solar industry?
AK: I don’t think that there is a need for it, to be honest. It’s good when an industry has a diverse range of technologies, so the market can choose what the market wants. At the moment we have the market dominated by silicon technology, and I think that perovskite will be a nice substitute. But I am not sure it will completely replace silicon. Perhaps in some applications, such as space industry for example, where power to weight margins are crucial, we will see lightweight solar picking up the mantel.
CTG: What are immediate next steps for the company?
AK: The first and the most important step for us is to finish building the prototype production line. After this, we will most likely focus on scaling up the production line, which gives us the chance to tinker with the products.
CTG: Are Saule Technologies currently actively seeking further venture investment?
AK: We are open to discussions about investment.
CTG: What are the company’s plans long term plans looking like in the next 10 years?
AK: In perovskite’s relatively short lifespan, we have seen developments which rival those such as silicon solar that have been in constant development for over 50 years. There’s nothing to say these advancements will not continue in a similar way. For us, this means building up more industry partners, continuing to develop across different applications, while also developing perovskite to increase efficiency levels, stability and to reduce cost even further. Even if we think that something is not possible or interesting now, it is worth examining. If people want it, there is probably a market for it.
CTG: Thank you Agata!
If you are interested about the developments in perovskite solar then be sure to check out i3 platform, giving you the latest investment trends in the space.