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Forecast is sunny for alumna’s solar power career

Alumna Martha Symko-Davies spoke at TEDxDU on May 13. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Martha Symko-Davies (PhD ’97) had a memorable May 20.

She got to meet Vice President Joe Biden and show him around the Process Development and Integration Laboratory (PDIL) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Both Biden and his boss are very interested in that work. And really, the whole world should be.

At that time, Symko-Davies was serving as the head of the photovoltaic incubator program at NREL in Golden, Colo., where she played a pivotal role in making solar energy a daily part of human life. Currently, she is the solar business manager for the PDIL at NREL.

In the program, she identified small start-up companies that can turn the sun’s rays into energy humans can use. Funded by the Department of Energy, the photovoltaic incubator gives companies up to $4 million and 18 months to see what they can develop.

Symko-Davies says the program has delivered $59 million in federal funds to about 20 photovoltaic startups and that more than 1,200 clean tech jobs have been created to date. Researchers say the potential exists to raise solar energy capacity in the United States from hundreds of megawatts to thousands of megawatts.

The program has awarded companies such as Abound Solar of Longmont, Colo., which created a simpler way to make cadmium-telluride solar cells. In turn, the company attracted even more venture capital money and a $400 million federal loan guaranty. The company expects to employ more than 1,000 when its plants in Colorado and Indiana reach full capacity.

Symko-Davies adds that the private sector has invested about $1.3 billion in the photovoltaic companies.

“I think that’s clear evidence of the commercial value of the technologies coming from these start-ups,” she says.

When it comes to the future of solar energy in the United States, Symko-Davies says she’s optimistic. “By the end of the decade, solar will be competitive with coal,” she says.

But to reach that goal, she says it’ll take innovations like thinner materials, lower cost manufacturing and reliable materials.

Symko-Davies spoke at TEDxDU and says her work fit the event’s theme, which was “radical collaboration.”

“It will take disruptive innovation and out-of-the-box minds to make solar a part of American life,” she says.

Symko-Davies, who’s the first female graduate of the materials science program offered by DU’s physics department, adds that her education at DU served her well in her career.

“It gave me the opportunity to complete my research at NREL for the PhD and that resulted in my job here.”


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