A cleantech startup announced this week that it has raised $50 million to scale distributed solar technology — but not for electricity production.
Zero Mass Water creates boxy solar panels that generate flows of pure, potable water instead of electrons. It offers access to safe water for homes or businesses in arid parts of the world or places with unsafe tap water. That need is set to grow as climate change dries out regions and alters weather patterns.
It’s no accident that Zero Mass Water follows the tactics and philosophy of the distributed solar market. Founder and MIT-trained materials scientist Cody Friesen previously started zinc-air battery company Fluidic, which supplied some 3,000 energy storage for remote renewable microgrids around the world. Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong bought that company and turned it into NantEnergy in 2018.
While traveling the world for Fluidic, particularly around Southeast Asia, Friesen noticed how water stress transcends geography. For his next venture, he wanted to “do for water what solar did for electricity,” he told Greentech Media. That vision attracted a high-powered roster of investors, bringing total funds raised to more than $100 million.
Funds managed by BlackRock led the Series C round, months after CEO Larry Fink used his highly anticipated annual letter to warn that climate change was causing a “fundamental reshaping of finance” and promise to prioritize sustainability in investment decisions. Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the Material Impact Fund joined the round, following up on earlier investments. U.S. utility Duke Energy also joined, a rare instance of that company making venture investments.
“We’re accelerating from here,” Friesen said. “These are probably the last dollars in.”
In other words, this round should get the company to a place where it needs no further venture investment. The company has already commercialized its Source Hydropanels, and has installed them for homes, schools, eco-resorts and other facilities in 45 countries. Zero Mass Water makes money on those deals at the project level, Friesen said, and is constantly honing the core technology to make it more cost-effective.
Zero Mass Water also created a “water purchase agreement,” equivalent to the power purchase agreement, which revolutionized the solar market by letting customers buy the output of plants, not the plants themselves.
How the Source Hydropanel works
The 340-pound Source Hydropanel contains a small photovoltaic array to power the system. The heart of the technology, though, is a set of nanomaterials designed to suck trace amounts of moisture out of the air — even in desert environments like the company’s home base of Tempe, Arizona. The panels use the heat of the sun’s rays to evaporate the water from the absorption materials. The system condenses the water, adds minerals to enhance the flavor, and pipes it out for consumption.
A home installation of two Hydropanels in the U.S. costs between $5,500 and $6,500 to buy and install, according to the company website. That system promises 12 bottles of “delicious water” per day for an operating life of 15 years, yielding a price of less than $0.15 per bottle.
Commercial-scale arrays string together rows of the same panel unit, much like solar PV panels scale up to supply commercial buildings. The company designs and assembles the panels in Arizona, then distributes them through a global network of installer partners, many of whom come from the solar installation business.
The competition mirrors the solar power industry as well. The incumbent tool for generating fresh water in places with only salty water is desalination. But desalination plants cost billions of dollars to build and consume vast amounts of energy.
In contrast, Source panels produce drinkable water with no infrastructure upgrades required — like building microgrids instead of a massive new thermal power plant.
Selling and installing hydropanels, Friesen noted, is relatively simple compared to solar PV in terms of regulation and permitting. The friction associated with interconnecting to the existing electric utility network doesn’t really apply for self-contained water generators.