Konarka: still trying for elusive solar building market

Konarka Technologies wants to see its solar material lining building’s windows everywhere, but finding customers in this market appears as difficult as convincing the Koch brothers that climate change is real.
The Massachusetts company said Monday it has installed the largest organic photovoltaic (OPV) solar thin-film installation of its kind at its factory in New Bedford, Mass., an announcement designed to broadcast its participation at the Intersolar trade show in Germany this week. Konarka’s OPV films use a photo-reactive material printed onto plastic, and they are quite different from the silicon or cadmium-telluride semiconductors used in conventional solar cells today. Instead of encasing the films in glass like other solar panels on the market, Konarka makes its films in protective polymer layers so that they are flexible.
OPV films also have far lower efficiencies than solar cells in panels that sit on rooftops today. Konarka’s 40 Series OPV films, for example, have less than 2 percent efficiency. Rooftop solar cells have efficiencies typically in the mid-teens. Konarka was able to develop a cell in its lab last year that could fetch 8.3 percent efficiency, but a lab cell takes a while to become a commercial product.
The company, founded in 2001, has raised close to $200 million in private equity, according to our calculations (and reported by various other outlets). In March last year, Konarka said it lined up $20 million from Konica Minolta, which wanted to create a manufacturing joint venture with Konarka at some point. We are waiting to hear from Konarka on its progress with Konica as well as more information about its latest pilot installation.
Konarka has shipped its films for lining umbrellas and shoulder bags, but it’s not clear whether these shipments and sales represent any significant volumes. Konarka has been marketing its OPV films to architects and builders in the building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) market, which has barely emerged and is a tough market to crack. Architects like the idea of adding eco-friendly features, but they tend to balk at the added expense and worry about the logistics of embedding, operating and replacing electrical equipment that isn’t likely to last as long as the buildings.
The lackluster housing market in the past few years also hasn’t helped. Just last week, Dow Chemical (s dow) said it was delaying the launch of its solar shingles for the roofing market. Solar shingles are among the building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) products that solar companies hope will one day become widely adopted.
Konarka wants to stick its OPV films on glass building facades. It installed a pilot project on an office building owned by Arch Aluminum and Glass in Florida more than a year ago. At the time of the announcement, Konarka said it was working on a transparent version of the OPV films because architects seemed to favor them over the more opaque variety for aesthetic reasons.
But transparent films aren’t as efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, said the company’s then-VP of business development, Terri Jordan. The pilot project at Konarka’s New Bedford factory uses semi-transparent films. The company hired a new business development and CTO earlier this year.