Thin-Film: More Than Window Dressing?

While solar mostly tops the roofs of buildings today, a $4.7-million boost from the U.S. government could help bring the technology to windows.

Lowell, Mass.,-based solar startup Konarka and the Allentown, Pa.,-based Air Products (NYSE: APD) said Tuesday they will receive the five-year grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program, which recently announced that it is doling out a total of $138.7 million to 56 projects.

For Konarka, the grant to commercialize window solar technology comes at an opportune moment: The thin-film solar company announced just last week that it had raised $45 million in a round of private and venture funding.

The idea of making windows more powerful is attractive because windows often are placed in well-lit areas and because they often already have a reflective coating.

Thin-film technology, which converts sunlight into electricity using only a thin coating of material, also could act as the reflective filter. And, because it can convert artificial and indirect light as well as direct sunlight, windows would allow the solar technology to produce electricity at night or on rainy days from light inside the room.

But one issue has long puzzled researchers. Most solar panels are opaque, while windows are transparent.

Konarka thinks it could help solve the problem. It has developed transparent, flexible, plastic-based material that it says can convert energy from both sunlight and artificial light sources.

The company hopes that the transparency - combined with a layer from Air Products that injects currents across the grid - can finally help bring solar to windows.

But the technology still has not proven its commercial viability, and an Air Products spokesperson noted that one challenge will be to make sure the material can be manufactured to be as robust and long-lasting as normal window panes.

United Kingdom pours money into low-carb technology

No, it's not a new-fangled diet.

The United Kingdom announced Tuesday that it was adding £170 million (around $346.7 million) to support the commercialization of low-carbon technologies in the UK to reduce the country's dependence on carbon and improve energy security.

That should help speed up the development of cost-effective organic solar photovoltaic cells, for example, and provide investment for interest-free energy-efficiency loans for small and medium-sized businesses, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said.

The domestic funding will become part of the UK's more internationally geared Environmental Transformation Fund. First announced in June 2006, the fund will dole out £1.2 billion ($2.4 billion) over a three-year period - mostly to support environmental projects in developing countries.

"Britain must be at the forefront of developing and deploying this technology - whether it be LED lighting for people's homes, biomass boilers for small businesses or major sources of renewable electricity from wind and the sea to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels," said Environment Secretary Hilary Benn in a statement.

The United Kingdom is certainly ahead of the United States in funding for environmental technologies on a per-capita basis, say analysts. But critics in the UK say the funding could only add to the glut of money being thrown at energy solutions - and might not be enough to really effect change.

"In 2003 and 2004, when the government was the only game in town, government funding gave the industry a boost, but now you have so many VCs in the space in the UK, and £170 million is still a very small amount," said Michael Liebreich, CEO of New Energy Finance. "I'm not declaring the war on climate change won."