Interview with Nick Kanopoulos of Brite Solar Technologies
Brite Solar Technologies is a nanomaterials company that develops transparent solar panels for greenhouses and Agri-PV applications trademarked as PanePowerTM. The unique technical advantage of PanePower is that it combines a nanocoating material that shifts the light spectrum from the UV region to red light, with silicon solar cells to deliver a solar panel optimized for plant growth and solar power generation at the same time. This technology addresses a critical challenge for the long-term sustainability of food and energy production. It makes possible the use of fertile land for crop cultivation and solar power generation, allowing a long-anticipated shift in the development of PV plants.
We talk with Nick Kanopoulos, founder and CEO of Brite Solar Technologies. Nick is a graduate of the Engineering School of the University of Patras and holds a Ph.D. from Duke University. After a 30-year career in the US, he returned to Greece in 2010 to found Brite Solar Technologies and started working on nanomaterial technologies that enhance glass with advanced properties. Ηere is what he told us.
Tell us a few things about Brite Solar. How did everything start, and where are you today?
I think it all started with my last job at Applied Materials while I was still in the US. I was involved in building solar panel manufacturing plants worldwide. There was clearly an ample opportunity in manufacturing transparent panels for applications in the building construction industry. So, upon my return to Greece in 2010, we launched Brite Solar Technologies.
Building applications typically require architectural approval, which can be difficult if the aesthetic dimension of the material does not meet architectural norms. So, despite the ambitious plans and advanced technology, the business did not go as anticipated. It was a setback, and we had to find a way to overcome it. We pivoted and switched focus to agriculture. As energy is a significant cost factor in this industry, our technology could make a difference by eliminating the energy cost. In essence, Brite Solar could, and in fact, addresses a real market need while presenting a clear value proposition to the market.
We wanted to try to eliminate the energy cost in controlled agriculture, which by the way, is 28% of the operating cost. So we focused on developing a solar panel that is transparent to the extent that it doesn’t affect crop yield and at the same time produces enough energy to support the energy needs of the greenhouse. We developed nanomaterials that absorb sunlight that is not used by plants (like UV radiation) and re-transmit it to a region of the spectrum where plants use it to photosynthesize, thus increasing the light energy for the plants versus regular glass. This is a necessary compensation for the loss of light due to the use of standard solar cells, which are non-transparent. The innovation of our patented technology is that it yields a transparent solar panel that is optimized for crop yield and power generation at the same time. Another novel development is designing a production line that combines the glass coating and the solar panel assembly functions into a fully automated process. We can handle any glass size and panel transparency in this fashion, which is a world-first achievement giving us a significant competitive advantage.
Today, the technology is validated in the field, and we have installations of pilot greenhouses and Agri-Voltaic (Agri-PV) systems in Greece, the Netherlands, and the US. We have over 12 granted and pending patents in the EU, China, and the US and have received numerous national and international innovation awards. The company has offices in Greece, the Netherlands, and the US and employs 19 scientists and engineers. Our immediate plans entail building a manufacturing plant in Patras, Greece.
What can Brite Solar actually do for us? What value do the company and its products provide to the user and customer?
Brite Solar’s end-customers are precision-farming operations conducted in glass greenhouses or employing Agri-PV systems that protect the plants. Brite supplies a transparent solar panel covering the greenhouse or the Agri-PV structure without affecting crop yield due to light blocking. Our glass technology produces solar energy, an additional income stream for the farmers.
The benefit to the farmer is the monetization from selling the solar energy to the grid and the CO2 credits collected. This is an additional revenue stream for the farmer that pays off the cost of installing solar glass in 3 to 5 years and has a net income stream for another 15 years or more. In addition, the crops are produced with a negative CO2 footprint which is a potent marketing tool for the grower. In a pilot greenhouse we developed with the largest winemaker in Greece, this footprint was -15.8 kg of CO2 per Kg of grapes produced, a global first in agriculture. In financial terms, this saves 800-1,000 euros in monthly electricity consumption for the grower with a greenhouse of only 1,000 m2.
As demonstrated in pilot greenhouse installations, agricultural operations exhibit a negative CO2 footprint with our transparent solar glass. As I said earlier, 28% of the operational cost for a greenhouse is linked to energy consumption. Brite Solar’s value proposition to the end-user is that the energy cost can be potentially eliminated. For Agri-PV, we have developed a system that combines our solar glass with a support structure. The system offers complete protection of the crops from adverse weather conditions, a new revenue stream from energy produced by the solar glass, and rainwater management by collecting and storing rainwater for further uses when needed and at the required quantity.
The EIC Accelerator recently funded Brite Solar under the Green Deal Innovations for the Economic Recovery challenge. Tell us more about this.
The EIC Green Deal is a competitive program that funds technologies contributing to the EU vision for a carbon-neutral Europe in 2050. The program has a success rate of 2.7%, and so far, we are the only Greek company funded. Brite Solar’s application was approved for Blended-Finance, an option that provides a combination of grant and equity funding. The EIC Fund approved 4.3 million euros in equity funding, and we are working to match it with the same amount from a Lead Investor to complete our Series A round for 8.6 million euros.
We believe that the EIC Accelerator is a critically important funding instrument for innovative companies. The Blended Finance creates significant advantages for companies on the lower part of the growth curve, as is Brite Solar. It is the first time that an EU Fund has invested equity in a Greek startup, and we hope that more Greek companies apply and succeed in the future.
What are your plans for the future?
We plan to close our Series A funding soon to finance our production and business development plans. We plan to build a manufacturing facility in the Industrial Zone of Patras. We have already selected property with the appropriate infrastructure. Also, we will deploy a sales and distribution network to support our expansion in priority international markets. Last but not least, we are currently designing a new dynamic/smart glass for the residential real estate market that we aim to launch commercially in 2023.