Stanford Students Environmental Consulting (SSEC) is conducting a year-long project to provide environmental consulting to a solar panel installation and distribution startup in Mexico looking to expand internationally. The social enterprise, Bright, installs solar panel infrastructure and leases the system to its clients.
According to SSEC Financial Officer and Vice President Eli Kahan ’19, one of solar power’s biggest obstacles is the initial cost of implementation and infrastructure. But if Bright can maintain a long-term customer base on its grid-tied electrical system, the startup will eventually be able to profit. A grid-tied or grid-connected system is a solar electricity system connected to the electrical grid, allowing homeowners to use both solar energy and power from the grid. The key advantage of a grid-tied system is that unused solar energy goes back into the grid and is saved for later use.
“If you can set up a grid-tied system where you’re feeding your excess energy back into the grid, you end up actually making money in the long-term,” Kahan said.
SSEC provides free consulting services to organizations to promote and implement well-researched, practical and sustainable solutions to environmental issues. The team consists mainly of freshmen, sophomores and graduate students from a mix of academic backgrounds, including applied math, engineering, public policy and economics.
Based on constraints such as the country’s legal regulations for solar energy and previous experience with solar energy, the consulting team has narrowed down the potential locations for Bright’s expansion. Countries they are currently considering include Spain, Italy and Chile.
When reviewing potential countries for expansion, SSEC also considers physical factors, such as rooftop space and population density, as well as socioeconomic factors, particularly whether there is existing demand for solar energy and whether the country has existing systems to compensate homeowners who use solar energy.
Language has been a barrier in SSEC’s research process, since much of the available material is in Spanish and Italian. The team has drawn on the Stanford alumni network to contact environmental experts with knowledge specific to those locations.
After translating and collating English-language materials, the team collectively discusses how the additional information plays into its criteria for the best market, population and location for Bright’s expansion.
Each year, the consulting team must revise their criteria and deal with new challenges, since their projects change annually. Last year, SSEC collaborated with Stanford Carbon Offsets to Reduce Emissions (SCORE) to mitigate carbon emissions from the athletic department because of its teams’ frequent travel.
“It was a unique case,” said Zhang with regard to the collaboration. “Usually it’s just our small team, by ourselves.”
The goals of last year’s project were clearer than those for Bright: The consulting members were individually responsible for specific data on carbon offsets, or for obtaining data from the Office of Sustainability.
“At first, it was very challenging this year to come up with a strategy of actually doing [the research]. It’s a little bit more vague than last year’s project in terms of the goals,” said Jimmy Zhang ’18, SSEC co-president.
According to former SSEC project leader and coterminal student Ashley Hammerbacher M.S. ’17, adapting to new projects each year is part of the learning process for students, who want a chance to use different skill sets. The club also finds it difficult to sustain multi-year projects.
This year, SSEC’s research will eventually coalesce into a comprehensive series of reports detailing their recommended countries and markets for Bright to pursue next. These demands require more collective brainstorming, so in addition to the individual research, the whole consulting team uses meetings as sounding boards for its ideas.
Ultimately, SSEC’s goal is for student consultants to learn from the research process.
“The entire purpose of the SSEC is to teach students different environmental analysis that they necessarily wouldn’t get from a classroom,” Hammerbacher said.
Contact Kim Ngo at kimanh ‘at’ stanford.edu.