Undergraduate trio makes ‘30 Under 30’ list for energy innovation

Daniel Maren, Darren Hau, and Andrew Ponec.  (Photo by Linda Cicero/Stanford News)
Daniel Maren, Darren Hau and Andrew Ponec (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News)

The editors of Forbes magazine have included three Stanford engineering undergraduates in its annual “30 Under 30″ list in the “Energy and Industry” subcategory for developing a device that can significantly improve the efficiency and reliability of large-scale photovoltaic installations.

DARREN HAU, ’15 (electrical engineering), DANIEL MAREN, ’16 (computer science), and ANDREW PONEC, ’15 (materials science and engineering), all 20 years old, have founded a company, called Dragonfly Systems, and are working to commercialize the product.

The price of solar remains a significant barrier to widespread use. Although the price of solar panels has dropped dramatically over the past several years, the other elements that contribute to the total cost of a solar installation – wiring, labor, maintenance, etc. – have grown from 30 percent to 70 percent. The greatest opportunity to make solar cost effective, the students say, is to tackle this area, termed “balance of systems” costs.

Dragonfly’s device connects directly to the back of a solar panel and can manipulate the panel’s voltage so that it never exceeds a predetermined limit. This allows limiting the voltage to near the maximum power point, called the Vmpp, as opposed to the worst-case open-circuit voltage, or Voc. By guaranteeing that the Dragonfly-augmented solar panel will never exceed a specified limit, the installation can accommodate 30 percent more panels per string.

The three students have taken a leave of absence from Stanford and are grateful for the university’s support in helping them get their device off the ground. The basic idea came to them when they were classmates in an introductory seminar, a course called Green Electronics, that was taught by BILL DALLY, a professor (research) in the School of Engineering, who remains an adviser.

Their independent research project was funded by an Undergraduate Advising and Research small grant, and they later won a TomKat Innovation Transfer award. They said that TomKat’s executive director of innovation transfer, BRIAN BARTHOLOMEUSZ, has been helpful with connecting them to various individuals in the solar industry.

Earlier this month, Forbes published its 2014 “30 Under 30” list of standouts in 15 fields such as finance, law, media and education, including several other Stanford students and alums.