The greek startup, with international reach and high technology, is trying to face the challenges of the next thirty years in food production and the environment, through the optimization of its agricultural production and at the same time by reducing the resources it needs, especially in terms of water and energy. We talked about these and many other issues with Brite Solar CEO Dr. Nick Kanopoulos.
S.M. Can you tell us the story behind the founding of Brite Solar?
Nick Kanopoulos: Brite was founded when I returned from the U.S.A., after 30 years of study and professional activity there in total. My last job was with Applied Materials, one of the main suppliers of technology and production machinery for photovoltaic panels.
Seeing the energy needs for agriculture and predicting that the next global crisis will be food, I developed, with partners such as Elias Stathatos, professor at the University of the Peloponnese, the idea for transparent photovoltaic panels that can be used in agriculture.
The company started self-financing, since it was then the beginning of the economic crisis and the country was a prohibitive risk for any investment. In the beginning, our funding was from research (Greek and European) programs and contracts with individuals for the development of pilot applications. Funding and the incredible bureaucratic procedures of public administration were the big challenges. Over the past two years we have seen significant improvements in both these areas and we are optimistic about the future.
S.M. Have you always been in the field of renewable energy? How did you make the decision to develop products in Greece in this sector, when previous efforts, such as Silcio and Solar Cells Hellas for example, did not manage to remain in this market?
Nick Kanopoulos: No, I am an electrical engineer, I specialized in semiconductors and had worked for many years in the design and production of integrated circuits. The transition to the field of construction of illuminators, which has a relevance to semiconductors at the level of materials, took place 12 years ago when I was at Applied Materials.
Your observation about the production of such products in Greece and your reference to the two companies, which I know well, has a basis, because indeed for conventional photovoltaics, production in Greece cannot compete with the factories in China and India that have a production of multiple volume.
This is because there is neither significant technological differentiation in the final product, nor a proprietary innovative technology that is unique to the producer. Our belief that the production of our technology in Greece is competitively feasible is based on the fact that we have unique technology and materials that we compose ourselves, as well as patents in China, USA and EU that offer us legal protection.
S.M. Many experts stress that the next crisis at a global level will be nutritional. How does this come about?
Nick Kanopoulos: This claim and this strong conviction is based on recent data announced by the UN’s economic forum. There, then, they predict an increase in the Earth’s population to 7.9 billion in 2050. In order to feed this population by today’s food standards, where by the way 700 million people are malnourished, agricultural production will have to increase by 70-100% compared to current levels.
This is simply not sustainable with conventional methods of agriculture, because today agriculture consumes 70% of the water and 14% of the world’s energy. Early signs of this crisis are beginning to become visible today. In the Salinas Valley in California, where almost all the locally produced vegetables of the American market are grown, there is a great deal of controversy between farmers and other citizens over the distribution of water.
Therefore, a technological solution should be found to reach the levels of production required and to do this with little or no impact on the environment, because climate change is further exacerbating agricultural crops, with millions of tons of crops being lost every year due to extreme weather events.
S.M. Can we simultaneously spend more energy and water to increase food production in order to maintain or improve people’s nutritional levels globally by keeping costs at affordable levels?
Nick Kanopoulos: The short answer is no. If we take the favorable scenario and assume that the increase of the required production is 70%, then the requirement for water will reach 119% of all the water that we currently spend ONLY on agriculture. This is, of course, unattainable and unsustainable. On the other hand, if production does not increase, but demand rises to these levels, food prices will rise exponentially with perhaps uncontrollable geopolitical consequences.
If we fail to increase crop yields massively while at the same time drastically reducing water use, then perhaps even 1 billion people will face famine in the next 30 years. To put it more graphically: in order to feed the estimated population of the Earth in 2050 with the current yields of agricultural cultivation, most of the forests in the world will have to be cleaned, wiping out thousands of species of the animal kingdom and increasing greenhouse gas emissions to the point of exceeding the temperature increase threshold of 2°C as set out in the Paris Agreement, even if emissions from other human activities are almost reduced to zero.
S.M. What are the effects of climate change on agricultural production? Does not the use of more energy from non-renewable sources in agriculture exacerbate climate change?
Nick Kanopoulos: I will first answer the second part of your question with an emphatic “yes”. The use of fossil fuels in agriculture has a very large and negative impact on climate change.In turn, climate change brings about extreme weather events, which lengthen the crop seasons, destroy millions of tons of crops either due to extreme drought or due to rainfall, hailstorms and frost. Another important impact is the decline of the bee population, which is an important parameter, since bees contribute to most of the pollination of plants in agriculture. Briefly I would say that agriculture is a job with risk and climate change greatly increases this risk.
S.M. Is there a technological solution for the need to increase production without affecting the climate and without having a devastating impact on the management of water resources on the planet?
Nick Kanopoulos: There is a solution and that is the cultivation in greenhouses with precision agriculture. Research published by the University of Arizona in the US four years ago shows that greenhouse production per square meter is ten times greater than in open agriculture and, most importantly, consuming 10 times less water. The cost for this though is energy, which is about 10 times more.
Therefore, the technological solution to the problem is the mass use of greenhouses for the cultivation of food while using renewable energy sources to minimize or even eliminate the cost of energy to operate the greenhouse. Also specially designed greenhouses have the ability to collect rainwater, so that it can be stored and used by the producer in quantities and times required to grow the specific plants inside the greenhouse.
S.M. What technology is Brite developing to provide answers to these global challenges?
Nick Kanopoulos: The technology we are developing is a transparent light-voltular panel with a nanostructured coating that absorbs ultraviolet radiation and emits it to visible light and specifically in the range of 600-650 nm of the visible spectrum (in red). The importance of this material is that it absorbs energy that is not used by plants and emits it where plants photosynthesize.
In other words, it provides more energy to plants than the common glass used in greenhouses and this results in improved agricultural production while producing electricity from the sun.We have measured experimentally that the use of solar glass can eliminate the cost of energy required for the operation of the greenhouse. In the design of greenhouses and crop protection systems we have added a system for collecting and storing rainwater, so that water is better managed and the producer waters the plants when needed and with the quantity needed.
In the facilities we design with our partners who build greenhouses, all these functions are done automatically based on measurements from sensors that measure parameters in real time (soil humidity, pH, temperature, etc.), according to which various actions are taken, such as watering, ventilation, cooling, heating, etc. These expensive agriculture actions are controlled by the greenhouse server and are accessible by the producer at any time to his mobile or from any internet-connected platform.
S.M. Has your technology been used in practice and with what results?
Nick Kanopoulos: Yes, we are producing pilot quantities of solar glass and our customers are using the product in the manufacture of greenhouses and structures to protect agricultural production. These structures are known asAgri-PV systems. In Greece we have made a greenhouse with the TSANTALI Winery, which produces grapes with a negative CO2 footprint for every kilogram of grapes thanks to the clean energy produced by the solar glass. Also, the greenhouse gives two vintages a year with better quality characteristics for the grapes. Both these results are being accelerated for the first time worldwide in the northern hemisphere.
We have Agri-PV facilities in the Netherlands for blueberries and pears with significant results both in quantity and quality of production and of course zero losses due to weather. By March 2022 we will also have greenhouses for tomatoes (Ptolemaida), avocados (Crete) and cannabis (USA) and we will install Agri-PV for lettuce (Ptolemaida), cherries (the Netherlands) and peaches (Veria). The energy production is 8-10% more than what we calculate with simulations throughout the design of these systems.
S.M. Where are your products produced?
Nick Kanopoulos: We are currently producing solar glass with a partner in China for relatively small orders, because we have limitations (due to the capabilities of the partner to produce this specialized product) in the size and permeability of the glass. Our goal is to build our own production line in the industrial zone of Patras with a capacity initially of 1.3 million square meter a year. To do this, we are actively working to close the 9 million euros investment required.
We have secured 50% from the European Innovation Council Fund (a European Fund where the European Investment Bank is the manager) and we are in negotiations with other investors for the rest.I should note here that the investment of the EIC Fund was decided after a competitive process and we are the only company in Greece, until this moment, that the European Innovation Council takes a shareholding position in Brite through the EIC Fund.
S.M. Is there institutional interest in the development of this technology? At national or even European level?
Nick Kanopoulos: I think so. There are now research projects at national level that fund the development of technology with an emphasis on its transition to production, and there are flagship actions at European level, such as the Green Deal, aimed at creating technologies for a zero-carbon Europe by 2050.
I am proud of Brite, because it is the only greek company so far that has been funded by the Green Deal after a highly competitive process where the success rate is 2.7%. At a national level, something that will also help in this direction, is the announcement of the Hellenic Development Bank of Investments for the creation of a targeted Fund that will invest in green technologies.
We hope that the announcement of actions in the new NSRF will also be aimed at technologies that will contribute to the European declaration for the zeroing of CO2 emissions by 2050.
S.M. What needs to be done at state level in order for there to be competitive production of high-tech products in Greece?
Nick Kanopoulos: The state’s contribution here should be in the institutional framework. Reduction of taxation and employers’ contributions, and abolition of capital accumulation tax. The state’s actions so far in these areas are in the right direction. However, we need a more drastic reduction in bureaucracy than the one that has been achieved by e-government so far and the encouragement of high-risk investment funds that are of a larger size so that production infrastructure can be financed.
Finally, the offset and payment of VAT needs to be modernised and balanced, as far as the rights of the state and the business are concerned. Now VAT refunds are unbalanced in favour of the state and cause liquidity problems for export-oriented businesses such as those of high technology.
S.M. What are your next steps and how do you see Brite Solar in the near future?
Nick Kanopoulos: Our first priority is to close the financing required and start the construction of the production line in Patras, from where we will supply our customers for orders that have deliveries in 2022 and beyond. The next step is the additional investment that we will seek at the end of 2022 to the beginning of 2023 to increase our production to over 2 million meters per year and complete the pilot production line for our second product which is the dynamic – smart glass for applications in buildings.