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April 20, 2017 4:33 pm

Israeli Entrepreneurs See a Bright Future for Solar Technology

avatar by Jeffrey Barken / JNS.org

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Israel’s Ketura Solar Field. Photo: Arava Power Company.

JNS.org – In October 2016, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk unveiled Powerwall II, a high-performance rechargeable battery powered by a solar roof. This new technology looks like a regular housing unit’s roof, and is designed to replace the bulky silicon panels that have been the solar industry norm.

“The goal is to have solar roofs that look better than a normal roof, generate electricity, last longer, have better insulation and actually have an installed cost that is less than a normal roof plus the cost of electricity. … Why would you buy anything else?” Musk asked.

SolarPaint, a start-up based in Kibbutz Nahsholim in northern Israel, seeks to answer a similar question. SolarPaint’s “electrode-net” (an ultra-thin wireframe similar to mosquito netting) and nanoparticle-infused coating can generate solar power. The technology can be put on roofs and walls without changing a structure’s appearance, and in the future, it will even be possible to put the product on roads. This technology could be a game-changer by solving the problem of limited land resources that has traditionally challenged the solar industry.

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“What if we had a cheap way to generate electricity out of any object exposed to the sun, merely by painting it?” Eran Maimon, SolarPaint’s chief technology officer and inventor, asks in a short promotional video posted on the company’s website.

‘Photovoltaic paint’

Solar farms promise abundant clean energy — especially in sunny, desert climates like Israel. But they also require vast land tracts to produce the quantities of power necessary to fuel large population centers. Israel, a relatively small country that is devoid of natural oil resources and threatened by hostile neighbors, has every reason to seek a solution to its energy needs that is both space-efficient and renewable.

Maimon first had the idea for SolarPaint in 2013. He promptly applied for a provisional patent, and in 2014 began seeking investors. SolarPaint initially raised $1.25 million from angel investors, and the Israeli government. The company is now on the classic “start-up nation” trajectory, aiming to enter a pilot production phase that will repurpose existing factories in Israel to manufacture high-quality coated solar wallpaper rolls that feature “photovoltaic paint.”

If SolarPaint succeeds in demonstrating the viability of its products, the next step will be to “go global,” Maimon tells JNS.org.

SolarPaint’s intellectual property is closely guarded, and company CEO Oded Rozenberg was reticent to speak at length about the ingredients in the “photovoltaic paint.” But he happily revealed the priorities that Maimon’s research addresses.

“Our selection process [for materials] was always in the following order: first, it needs to be stable, abundant and low cost, and only after that it needs to also be efficient enough to be commercially viable” he says.

The “paint’s” current price is $3.26-3.72 per square foot, Maimon says — and that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the expense of flexible solar panels. It’s also cheaper than conventional silicon panels.

As of 2016, EnergySage.com estimates that installing a full solar panel system to power an individual household costs, on average, more than $12,500, after tax credits. SolarPaint’s energy yield is 30-50 percent lower per square foot than what a regular panel produces. And SolarPaint contends that when consumers factor in the surface versatility of its solar wallpaper rolls, the price advantage over other products is even greater.

Maimon suggests that his technology has the potential to make giant solar and wind farms obsolete. Likewise, he predicts a significant change in the way electricity is delivered to consumers. “There will be micro-grids, and smaller, more secure and robust networks.”

“Israel is a great place for start-ups,” Maimon says, because there is a collegial atmosphere in the country that “[is] not a competition, [but rather] a synergy.”

His company has forged enduring partnerships with academics, entrepreneurs and manufacturers throughout Israel, and these partners share a seemingly patriotic interest in the company’s success.

Another advantage that Maimon highlights in Israel is the absence of an oil lobby, which removes a common barrier to innovation in the solar industry. Instead, “we have an anti-oil lobby and a government initiative for finding alternative fuels,” Maimon says.

In the United States, by contrast, the nascent Trump administration was quick to support the oil industry, by issuing executive orders approving the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines, and signaling support for the renewed development of coal resources.

Rozenberg suggests that Americans have soured on solar energy in part because Chinese manufacturers have increased capacity and dropped the price of solar panels, causing most US companies in the field to go bankrupt. “Many Western companies couldn’t compete, investors lost huge amounts of money and now, in the West, people are hesitant to invest,” he says.

But the volatility of the global energy market, in turn, may create a significant opportunity for SolarPaint to emerge as a leader in its niche. The start-up’s recent round of fundraising yielded $2 million, enough to cover its operating expenses for the next 18 months.

Conscious of the solar industry’s cutthroat nature, Rozenberg and Maimon believe that timing is everything.

“We don’t think we can compete in the short term with traditional silicon solar panels,” Rozenberg says. “We want to start sales at the end of 2019. Then we will be competitive already.”

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