Barrier-breaking physicist clears path for solar power

By Ariel Wittenberg | 11/09/2015 12:59 PM EST

The leader of the Department of Energy effort to drive down the cost of solar power enjoys a big challenge.

When Lidija Sekaric was recruited for the SunShot initiative in 2010, she turned up her nose at the program’s goal — lowering solar module costs from $2 a watt to 50 cents by 2020.

"We were not ambitious enough for her," then-Director Minh Le recalled in a recent interview. "I pitch it to her that we are going to reduce costs by 75 percent, and her immediate reaction — with a straight face — was, ‘Why not 25 cents per watt?’"

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It took some coaxing, but Sekaric eventually joined SunShot, serving as Le’s trusted deputy for the last four years. During that time, solar module costs have fallen to 65 cents per watt.

And Sekaric, considered a DOE "rising star" at the time Le recruited her, has taken over as acting SunShot director. Le has moved to a post at the Office of Management and Budget (Greenwire, Oct. 21).

"She has done a tremendous job," Le said. "I know that she will not only continue the trajectory that we laid out together, but she will also do better than that, because she has been outpacing me from the beginning."

By the time she got to DOE, Sekaric was known for pushing boundaries.

A technologist-turned-policy wonk, Sekaric, 41, spent her first six years after graduate school at International Business Machines Corp. trying to find the limit of Moore’s Law — which says computer processing power will double every two years — by creating the smallest possible semiconductor chips. Some of the structures she developed were only tens of atoms long.

Lidija Sekaric
Lidija Sekaric took over as head of the Department of Energy’s Sunshot program last month. | Photo courtesy of the Department of Energy.

"The smaller you make something, the faster it can perform and the cheaper it is to manufacture," she said in an interview.

Sekaric’s office wall is decorated with her 30 patents — most of which are for objects visible through a microscope.

Her favorite patent is for a "nanoguitar" she invented while completing her Ph.D. at Cornell University. The instrument is the smallest playable guitar ever created — one string is 1/100,000 the width of a human hair — and produces music inaudible to the human ear.

"It’s something we made just for fun," she said, "just to test the limits."

At SunShot’s helm, Sekaric is still pushing limits — financial, not physical.

Tasked with achieving grid parity for solar power by 2020, the program has already picked the low-hanging fruit.

In the past five years, the cost of solar has dropped largely because of advances in hardware, Sekaric said, and it is now up to SunShot to make efforts to cut down the "soft costs" of solar installation.

SunShot’s Catalyst program is one way to do that, she said. The program holds contests, awarding winners prizes of up to $100,000 for developing new ways to address solar market needs through ideation and data, business innovation, and new prototypes.

"At the moment, 70 percent of our system cost on average is not in the hardware space," she explained. "If we can find new ways to install systems faster, or lower interest rates, or create innovative business models like community solar and shared solar, that is how we get to grid parity."

Inspired by Carl Sagan

Sekaric joined DOE in 2009 as a science and technology policy fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science after working at IBM for six years.

During her time in the lab, she was active in the women’s network, encouraging girls to pursue careers in science and technology. She has also long been an environmentalist and cared about issues like energy poverty.

When she started thinking about what she wanted to do after IBM, she said, DOE was an obvious choice.

"I had been relatively successful in my career in research, and I thought about the kind of things I wanted to work on, and it was understanding what I as a person and what we as a society could do to combat climate change," she said.

"So I could either stay in a lab and create something that could help change the way we produce and use energy, or I could leave the lab and get a deeper understanding of how to change policy and impact it."

The transition from physics to policy has not been difficult, Sekaric said.

"Physicists like attacking problems," she said. "Put a big problem in front of us, and we will tear it apart and tackle it with the tools we have."

Sekaric’s IBM supervisor, Supratik Guha, said he’s not surprised she has succeeded in the policy sphere, given her track record of communicating complicated concepts clearly to a broader audience.

"There aren’t too many people like that, who can communicate those technical things to people who don’t know anything about them and get them to actually understand," he said. "But she throws herself into every project until it becomes part of her fundamental understanding of how the world works. Once you understand something that fully, it’s easy to bring other people to your level."

Sekaric’s ability to explain nanostructures and solar policy flows from her childhood hero, astronomer and author Carl Sagan.

Growing up in Montenegro, which was then part of Yugoslavia, she was fascinated by "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," Sagan’s popular 1980 television series on a wide variety of science topics. "Cosmos" inspired Sekaric to go into physics and learn more about how the world interacts with itself.

She remembers the first moment it all clicked for her, as an 11-year-old sitting in an auditorium waiting for a school concert. She recalled staring at a loudspeaker.

"I just remember thinking, ‘I know what’s inside that. I know how that works,’" she said. "It just got me."

At SunShot, Sekaric said, her goal is to break down solar energy into understandable, manageable components.

"In science, you have a well-defined problem and a scientific question, and you find one true answer," she said. "The policy questions here are much wider than what a scientist would tackle at one time, but that does not mean it is more complex. It just needs to be reduced in a different manner until it is manageable.

"Scientists," she added, "are good at reducing things and putting them in a way that can be attacked and understood."

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