The problem with smart window tech, which can control the amount of light and heat that passes through the glass, is that it’s always been too expensive. But in a move that could help the technology reach economies of scale, this morning French glass and construction giant Saint-Gobain announced that it has made an $80 million strategic investment into Sage Electrochromics, a decade-old company that makes “electrochromic windows,” which can tint and block light when a charge is applied.
Sage made headlines earlier this year when the Department of Energy granted it a $72 million loan guarantee, making it one of only a dozen or so companies to receive one of the coveted federal loan guarantees (President Obama is now streamlining this program). The company received the loan guarantee to build a 250,000 square foot factory in Faribault, Minnesota, and Sage says it will use the new funding from Saint-Gobain to continue to build out the factory, which will cost a total of $135 million to construct. When built, Sage says the plant will be “the world’s largest and most advanced electrochromic glass manufacturing facility.”
That’s where the economies of scale and the crucial Saint-Gobain investment comes in. The factory will be able to produce large sheets of glass — larger than previously available — opening up the bulk of the building market to the company. The glass will also be able to be produced at a lower cost than it is currently being produced at, according to the companies. Sage will produce the glass for both its own and Saint Gobain’s product lines at the factory, and the companies’ research and development and intellectual property will be merged.
While Sage will remain an independent company, in the world of acquisitions, clearly the companies are dating, if not engaged. Saint-Gobain will sell the Sage glass product in Europe under its Quantum Glass brand, while Sage will sell its glass in the U.S. market. Sage has also raised money from a list of well-known private investors including Good Energies, Applied Ventures (the VC arm of Applied Materials) and Bekaert.
Sage’s windows are made using an all-ceramic stack of thin-film coatings over a glass substrate. A low voltage of DC power can switch the windows from letting in more than 60 percent of visible light, down to less than 5 percent. The DOE has noted that electrochromic windows can cut air conditioning costs by up to 20 percent per year in commercial buildings.
An up and coming competitor to Sage is 3-year-old Soladigm, which also makes electrochromic windows and is building its first commercial factory plant in Mississippi. Soladigm has a licensing agreement with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for a set of processes for modulating light, and is working on materials that could absorb or reflect light. Soladigm has raised about $30 million in equity and debt and received a $3.5 million grant from the DOE.
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