What makes California's Silicon Valley unreproducible elsewhere is not its proximity to universities but the entrepreneurial spirit in its DNA.  On a typical day, in a cafe or restaurant in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, or Mountain View, most of the conversations I'm involved in or overhear are about new products, new companies and new investments.  It never stops.  Today I spoke with two garage-stage inventors and entrepreneurs with global-domination intentions for their solar ideas.  One is working on a new hybrid photovoltaic/thermal system for flat industrial roofs.  The other, HighFlex Solar, is building and shipping flexible, light-weight solar panels.

Carlo Treves is the CEO of this very early-stage firm. The startup takes crystalline silicon cells from a variety of vendors, mounts and encapsulates them on a flexible polycarbonate substrate and builds solar panels in a variety of sizes for a variety of applications.  The CEO brought working samples with him and the product is indeed very flexible and light.  Later versions will also be foldable.

Unlike many startups I encounter that are armed with just a PowerPoint and lots of hope, HighFlex is actually shipping product.  They've already shipped about 50 kilowatts of product for recreational and portable power applications.   Some of the firm's panels are being used in Haiti for disaster relief support.  The firm also works with the good people at WeCare Solar, an organization that uses solar-powered lighting to save laboring mothers' lives in developing nations.

The flexible panels dispense with the 'glass sandwich' approach used by most photovoltaic module vendors.  Treves claims that this allows for a six-percent increase in power generation because of increased transmissivity. This also potentially allows a lot more of the environment in -- so Treves has to prove that the product can handle thermal cycling, impact and UV.

Global Solar Energy and Konarka are some of the many vendors making flexible solar materials for portable power usage.  Certainly, HighFlex's use of c-Si gives them an advantage in terms of efficiency.  Applications that HighFlex are going after include portable-device charging, but also automotive applications.  Car makers have expressed an interest in covering the roofs and hoods of vehicles with solar, an application for which properties such as being lightweight and flexible would be imperative. The firm is working with a Fiat EV and an electric truck, as well as the roof of a certain well-funded EV startup in southern California.

HighFlex has its sights set on the building-integrated PV industry, such as it is.  Currently, BIPV is actually BAPV (building-applied PV) from the likes of Energy Conversion Devices with their amorphous silicon technology.  Treves sees HighFlex as being able to generate 2.5 times more power at half the weight of ECD's units.   

And to round out its ambitions, HighFlex sees its products' key attributes, such as light weight and the ability to cover larger areas, as making them a cost-effective choice for solar farms.  The CEO claims that they can save 82 cents per watt on the installed cost because of a reduced Bill of Materials, less Balance of System costs, decreased transportation costs, more energy gain, and fewer required mounting structures.

HighFlex takes its green credentials seriously and highlights the sustainability aspect of their solution.  Treves claims that the product's unique design gets rid of much of the water used in the traditional PV manufacturing process, reduces packaging and cardboard by 66 percent, and reduces the embedded energy in the panel by 20 percent. Furthermore, the absence of EVA in the HighFlex product makes it easier to disassemble, recycle and reuse.
Currently self-funded, the startup is looking to raise $2 million in seed funding.

Tags: a-si, bipv, c-si, ecd, flexible solar, global solar, highflex, konarka, portable power, venture capital