Just 35 miles south of the thriving metropolis of San Francisco, palm-tree lined streets, walkways and bike paths guide students through the eight thousand acres of the Stanford University campus.
An ideal environment for incubating innovation, Stanford University—or “The Farm” to students and alumni—has a rich history of producing successful graduates whose academic experiences prepared them to solve some of the world’s most complex challenges.
Sam Newman’s five years there are no exception, where he learned that many of these challenges could be met with unique approaches.
Four years later, Boulder’s iconic Flatirons have replaced the palm trees of Palo Alto. And, instead of navigating Stanford’s campus, Newman, a consultant with RMI’s electricity practice, now spends his free time navigating the area's complex climbing routes.
Newman, a three-year veteran of RMI, is currently a key contributor on RMI’s “PV Balance of Systems” (BoS) project, which is examining how to drive down the installed costs of solar PV and ultimately accelerate widespread adoption.
The project is tailor-made for Newman’s ability to tackle problems in a unique and unassuming way. Working on issues that are fresh, different and require close collaboration is Newman’s forte—as is making it look easy to the rest of the team.
“Everything seems so effortless to him, whether it’s an issue at work or a 13 mile run,” said Natalie Mims, a senior consultant at RMI. “But when you look closely, you can tell the gears in his head are always turning.”
Evolution of a Problem-Solver
As a student of structural engineering and construction management at Stanford, Newman couldn’t help but feel he was working on a “solved” problem.
A seminar course on green buildings proved to be an unanticipated turning point. Newman was struck by the wide range of students that were attracted to issues of environment and energy. “These courses attracted everyone from engineers like me, to business students and law students, and it became a great way to work with a unique mix of people.”
As a graduate teaching assistant, Newman taught many of the very courses in energy and efficiency that had shaped his undergraduate education. “By the time I left Stanford, I had cemented some expertise, but most of all I developed a clearer picture of where innovation was needed,” he said
Solar Power and “Balance of Systems”
Today, Newman’s gears are turning around solar power, with a particular focus on BoS costs—a term that refers to all of the system components in a PV system, except the PV module itself, including labor and overhead costs.
RMI’s current work on this project started late in 2008. Historically an expensive generation option, solar is ripe for dramatic cost reductions, a necessity for it to be a viable and competitive part of a low-carbon electric system.
While solar panel prices fell as much as 40 percent in 2009, the installed cost of solar remains high. Today, the cheapest PV systems produce electricity that remains more costly than other resources.
In analyzing the solar chain, Newman saw that the BoS cost components—racking, wiring, inverters, labor and overhead costs—represented over half of total installed costs, a huge opportunity for optimization.
“Sam basically created the entire hypothesis driving the balance of systems project,” said Lionel Bony, director of RMI’s Office of Chief Scientist. “By merging several different approaches to the research in a way that had never been looked at together before, he was able to pinpoint an enormous opportunity.”
Achieving a dramatic change in costs requires not just modifying existing practices, but also rethinking the design from beginning to end. To achieve market growth, regulators, customers, solar industry groups and installers need to work together to overcome the existing barriers to a cost-effective and marketable PV system.
“RMI brings a fresh perspective to the processes that account for half the cost of the entire system,” Newman said. “This approach is classic RMI: reevaluate the problem, bring together the right mix of stakeholders, and engage them to develop an innovative, practical and actionable solution.”
In June, RMI will host a design Charrette in San Jose, Calif., to bring new thinking to the challenges of PV system installation and to hammer out a roadmap for the next generation of cost-effective PV systems. For three action-packed days, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs from inside and outside the solar industry will develop design concepts for PV systems.
This transformational event has the solar community buzzing.
“By talking to people in the industry and continuing our research, we realize how excited everyone is by this approach,” Bony said. “Everyone knows this hits the problem head on and is absolutely necessary. We’re glad Sam pointed us in the right direction.”
In a sense, the Charrette will bring Newman full circle—back to the Bay Area near Stanford—this time not as a student, but as a leader for an event that seeks to push the envelope for an industry on the brink of transformation.
Kelly Vaughn is a public relations specialist with RMI.
--Published June 2010