Polished granite looks impressive. Polished granite gives your building elegance. But would you swap it for a less expensive facade that, by the way, also generates its own electricity? Jeff Szczepanski and Rob Lyndall, founders of Applied Photovoltaics, are finding a growing number of architects, builders, and owners answering a resounding “yes.”
Since the duo opened their Pennington office in 2007, their building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) systems have been attracting a lot of interest. The technology, which they are fine-tuning and targeting for manufacture by first quarter, 2011, involves a thin-film of solar collectors that can be custom applied to almost any structural glass curtain. In addition to builders, it is exactly what two levels of government are desperately seeking — and rewarding.
On the federal level, the Obama administration is hunting for pathways toward clean alternative energies and clean construction footprints that may be employed at initial stages nationwide. Because Applied Photovoltaics fits this bill, the U.S. Department of Energy and the IRS earlier this year granted the firm $1.1 million in 48C Advanced Energy Manufacturing tax credits. Operating under the American Recover and Reinvestment Act, these credits may be used of offset equipment costs as they move into production.
“The validation of our technology by the feds has proved a tremendous boost to our credibility,” says Szczepanski. “People are now thinking ‘if the DOE’s best experts say it works, it must work.’” It doesn’t hurt that Applied Photovoltaics was the only firm in New Jersey to gain such an award.
For the state government, the company’s plans to manufacture instate are a dream come true. Ever since the New Jersey Clean Energy Program adopted its ambitious solar support agenda, residents having been lining up to install solar panels on their homes and factories. The state’s 6,000-plus installations has nearly doubled in the last year.
The state is among the top three producers of solar power nationally, with state programs offering the fastest payback to solar owners. But New Jersey does not manufacture panels or solar products in any noticeable number — a situation officials very much want to change. All that hardware money goes out of state. In fact, most of it goes out of the country, primarily to China, with some lesser amounts going to Europe, India, and a few South American manufacturers.
“We’re Jersey boys,” says Szczepanski, “Rob grew up in Pennington and I was born in Flemington. Of course we want to take advantage of New Jersey’s solar support network, but it’s more because we like central Jersey and want to build here.”
For the last few months Lyndall and Szczepanski have been searching for an existing 35,000-square-foot building that they can transform into a plant capable of handling their expected output of 450,000 square feet a year of custom integrated structural/photovoltaic materials.
Applied Photovoltaics will offer a full-line operation, guiding customers through need assessment, designs, custom manufacture, and installation. The company’s technology can be applied to a variety of applications including curtain walls, balconies/railing systems, skylights — basically anywhere in a building where architectural glass is used.
The company intends to manufacture the BIPV units out of either semiconductor solar energy thin-films or crystal silicon photovoltaic wafers. These units can then be incorporated as single units into structures, or integrated into fenestration systems. Customers could include architects, building project developers or building retrofitters, the federal government (which has a program to “modernize” its building), curtainwall developers, glass fabrication companies, and architectural glass suppliers.
Potential buyers often vainly compare building-integrated photovoltaics with the more common rooftop array. The confusion is understandable. “We don’t sell high-priced solar energy” says Szczepanski. “We sell reasonably priced building materials that also produce electricity. That’s BIPV in a nutshell.” This distinction matters when it comes to cost.
The standard solar array in a backyard or rooftop generates a given number of kilowatts. Its owner has plunked down a great deal of cash at the outset, hoping to recoup his investment through a lowered, or vanished, electric bill, plus the sale of solar renewable energy certificates. These are sold to utilities seeking to fill their clean energy quotas as mandated by state law. In New Jersey this is a substantial reward. An average Garden State home generating enough solar energy to cover all its needs may expect up to $8,000 in SREC sales this year.
The solar array buyer balances all this income against his original cost, with an eye toward the payback time. Thus he is always asking “How many watts per square meter in this system?” “What’s the efficiency?” and “How many years before I recoup my investment?” With BIPV, other questions more directly apply.
‘You are going to have to cover your building with some material anyway,” explains Szczepanski. “So the first calculation is to figure the overall cost of granite, stucco, brick, or whatever, versus our product.”
The cost of installing APV’s thin solar film and glass may exceed the other considered material. But it’s not time just yet to tally the difference and balance it against the electricity savings for a final payback. Myriad other factors come into play. First, substantial state rebates for solar installation, though recently cut by Governor Christie, still remain. Also, owners will be earning SREC cash.
The federal government is actually boosting its own rebate programs, particularly for BIPV. Further, the rental and resalability factors are immense. Office space is more desirable if its electricity is already paid. And to sell an entire building, complete with solar energy and inherent bragging rights, provides a significant price boost.
Even before resale, the LEED points gained in a BIPV structure alone may be adequate to earn the coveted silver rating. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council, provides builders a way to design and operate buildings in a more sustainable way (visit www.usgbc.org). Gaining a silver, gold, or platinum LEED rating is a gateway to grants and funding.
These days, Lyndall moils in the Pennington office basement, tweaking his prototype versions toward manufacturability, while Szczepanski fields the barrage of sales and product queries. Theirs is that legendary business match of engineer/inventor and product-savvy marketer. In 2006, when they walked away from their former employer, Energy Photovoltaics (EPV) in Robbinsville, they boasted nearly half a century of combined thin-film solar expertise. The good news was that they also made this stroll into their own venture unhindered by any no-compete clause from EPV.
Shortly after graduating from Rutgers with a bachelor’s in physics in l987, Szczepanski joined Chronar Corporation in Princeton, headed by veteran solar innovator and entrepreneur Zoltan Kiss. As Chronar morphed its identities into Advanced Photovoltaic Systems, and finally EPV, Szczepanski stayed involved, increasingly shifting his marketing skills onto the more cutting-edge thin-film technologies.
In 2004 he met Lyndall, also at EPV, and everything clicked. “Rob is the most ‘can-do’ engineer I have ever known,” says Szczepanski. “He never says no. It’s always, ‘we can achieve it this way, or try this other path.’”
Lyndall, a self-professed tinkerer who is addicted to the workings behind every new gadget, spot-selected his formal education. Choosing specific courses from the College of New Jersey and Mercer Community College over several years, Lyndall “keeps on learning” what he needs. He credits his love of electric energy with his father, who labored 37 years for PSE&G, beginning as a lineman.
Despite a great admiration for his father, Lyndall holds too much of the innovator and entrepreneur to follow in his boots. Over the last three decades, he has helped develop several improvements in the full range of solar products — proof that not all invention comes from straight-line education.
“Applied Photovoltaics doesn’t patent its technologies,” notes Lyndall “That’s just opening the door to tech raiders.” To help overcome the cutthroat technology piracy so rampant in the solar energy field, the U.S. Patent Office now provides a special solar rush package that cuts the typical two-year patent wait time to 10 weeks. But for most firms this still is not enough.
The downside of patents is that they show the inquiring competitor the exact schematic of your process. The up side should be that it provides the owner with a hunting license to go after infringers. “But that works only if you have an army of lawyers who know their way around Chinese courts,” says Lyndall.
As a result, much of APV’s methods, from the unique wiring systems inside the window frames to certain highly technical aspects, must remain within their walls. Yet without giving away their magic elixir, a brief visit to APV’s Pennington offices, littered with new prototypes and museum-vintage solar pieces, provides a true education in both theory and technique.
From the mouths of theorists, solar energy all sounds so simple. Basically sunlight, laden with photons, strikes the solar panels. Some photons are absorbed into the panels’ semiconducting materials, such as silicon. These strike electrons (negatively charged particles) and agitate them loose from their atoms. The electrons flow down the copper wires as direct current and enter an inverter that changes them into home-usable alternating current. Voila! Sun to electricity.
Easy for the sun, but humankind’s most intelligent minds are left to struggle with the most puzzling question — what kind of semiconductor is the most efficient, cheapest, available, easiest to manufacture, lightest weight, and hopefully nontoxic?
The vast majority of solar arrays on roofs or in backyards are collections of monocrystalline silicon wafers glued to heavy glass panels. Despite their weight and cost, the efficiency of their silicon and ease of manufacture makes them the preferred materials right now.
However, standards change for BIPV. A thin film that can be easily spread over a glass curtain and even embedded in stone materials holds far greater appeal. Several thin-film semiconductors are in use and under experimentation. Not all are problem-free, as Szczepanski notes with cadmium telluride photovoltaic cells. “They are really inexpensive and really efficient,” he says. “If you can ignore the fact that they are poisonous, they’re great.”
As the two-man Applied Photovoltaics gets set to gear up for major production and vast expansion, it is keeping several interim irons in the solar fire. Szczepanski and Lyndall consult on solar projects and take speaking engagements across the U.S. and the European Union. They also operate as agents for Titan Energy, a solar monocrystalline manufacturer that boasts the rare claim of using 90 percent American content in its products.
Once their company’s new building-integrated photovoltaic systems begin to spread across the state and beyond, Szczepanski and Lyndall might well be cited as yet another pair of New Jersey innovators who have changed the face of our landscape. They certainly are standing in the right field, under the right light, with a lot of the right tools.
Applied Photovoltaics LLC, Box 60, Titusville 08534; 609-818-0880. www.appliedpv.com.