Life Lessons: First Year As A Professional

Work anniversaries (Work-aversaries) hold a special place in many people’s hearts. Most people I’ve talked to know the exact date when they started working for a company. Especially for those who have been at the same company for many years- decades even- that date becomes more and more special each year it comes around. It’s something to be celebrated not only by the individual, but by the company who has seen this person grow over the years. For me, “years” is not yet plural, as May marks my first work-aversary of my young career. And although this anniversary may not even merit a pizza party, it does invoke a sense of reflection in consideration for all of the lessons that have been learned in a year that will one day be long in the past.

Let’s start with the common hurdles that many young people graduating college must first overcome. I would title this first lesson, perspective. For the first 20-ish years, we learn, succeed, and fail among our peers who are similar in age and background. From the youth baseball games, to the high school AP tests, to the college capstone projects, we were always surrounded by people in the same shoes. It was comfortable, safe, and most all, relatable. However, when the real-world hits (after college, let’s be honest…) we plunge into the diverse environment that is “the workplace.” Many of our fellow co-workers are not the same age, they went to different schools, have held other jobs, and might even have children our age! You are now just another guy or gal that is held to the same standard as everyone else in the office. A missed deadline is no longer 10% off your grade, it’s overhead, it may affect the bottom line, and it probably isn’t going to tolerated like it was in school. For the first-year employee, you have to grow up fast and get up to speed with how people do business. The sooner that happens, the sooner the real world will feel more comfortable, safe, and relatable.

The second lesson that I learned is how to have confidence in the workplace. Growing up and looking at corporate life, I remember thinking how complicated business must be. With words like “capital expenses” and “contract administrator” and “taxes” (kidding about the last one), I thought I’d never be able to grasp what it takes to be successful beyond the classroom. What I’ve learned, however, is that no matter the complexity of a subject, the least you can do is identify its purpose and function. Drawing any sort of connection to something that sounds foreign will begin to make sense overtime. There might be a big learning curve, but once the confidence comes, you become dangerous.

The third lesson, and certainly not the last lesson, is one of research. I don’t mean research like you would do in a library, it’s research you carry out by asking people questions. The importance of asking the right questions in the right way and at the right time is a skill that is not taught in school. Just like asking the “right” questions, you must also seek the “right” answer. To do this, problems have to be broken down in its simplest form in order to ask the simplest questions. As always, time is of the essence. People may not have time for you to explain the problem at hand, so it’s important to get the information you need as efficiently as possible. It therefore becomes imperative to identify people who know the answers to certain questions, and if they give good answers, keep going back to ask more questions. At the end of the day, if you’re not asking questions, you’re not learning.

In reviewing my first year of working, it was packed full of new experiences; I can confidently say that learned something new every single day. Making sense of the real world by doing good research, having confidence, and keeping a fresh perspective on things is my best advice to anyone struggling with first year transitions. By the time I retire, I may not remember everything I did in that first year of working, but I will remember the lessons I learned based on how they have shaped who I have become.    

Solar PV Material Efficiency

With innovations such as bifacial solar panels, solar windows, and solar shingles, it is certainly an exciting time for the industry. In today’s fast-paced market, it is important to adapt quickly to consumer demands. These inventions have been made to tackle efficiency and aesthetic concerns associated with traditional solar PV installs. For those who don’t particularly care about the look of their solar system, efficiency is everything. Bifacial modules collect light from the front and back of the panel and can yield an additional 10% in electricity production compared to monofacial modules with concrete or vegetation undercovers, and 30% with a more reflective undercover. Despite our ability to capture both direct and reflected sunlight, we are limited in the efficiency of our PV material used today.

The most widely used PV material is crystalline silicon. Silicon cells utilize a p-n (positive-negative) junction to drive the flow of electrons. Conventional solar cells only use one p-n junction and have an efficiency limit known as the Shockley-Queisser limit. For a single p-n junction in silicon this limit is 32%, which is impossible to reach due to practical reasons such as reflection and light blockage from the thin wires required to run across the cell surface. The limit comes from a variety of factors including recombination of electron-hole pairs, spectrum losses, and impedance matching. Silicon has a band gap of 1.1 eV, which is the energy required to excite an electron into a free state so that it can move through the material and contribute to electrical current. This means that any photons from the sun with less energy than the band gap will not create a free electron, including radio waves, microwaves, and most infrared photons. Any photons with more energy than the band gap will create a free electron with high energy but most of the energy will be lost through heat as the electron moves through the cell. These spectrum losses account for a staggering 52% reduction in the amount of sun energy that can be converted into electricity.

So, what can be done about the confusingly inefficient, yet most widely used material for solar PV energy production? There is hope, stemming from some of the most cutting-edge research with semiconductors. There are various thin film solar cells such as cadmium telluride (CdTe) or gallium arsenide (GaAs) that have proven their worth with high efficiencies. CdTe gives silicon a run for its money on a cost/watt basis, but cadmium is toxic, and telluride is not very abundant. There are also multijunction cells that aim to tap into the portion of the spectrum that single junction cells cannot by using layers of materials with varying band gaps. Quantum dot solar cells have been getting a lot of attention as you can tune their band gaps to certain levels to capture the desired spectrum. However, they still lack in efficiency and need much more research to get where they need to be for practical use.

Perhaps one of the most promising emerging solar PV materials is the perovskite solar cell. Perovskites are a crystal comprised of an organic molecule, a metal, and a halogen. These are found in nature, but a synthetic perovskite has been created with inorganic atoms and an organic polymer. Contrary to silicon fabrication techniques, this technology can be made at low temperatures and does not require a glass cover. A pure perovskite cell now has an efficiency of 24% and a silicon-perovskite cell has an efficiency of 28% compared with the 25% of a solely silicon cell. While this is exciting news, there is a lot of work that needs done to make these advanced solar cells commercially viable. As solar power generation becomes more prevalent in our society, we need to continue to seek out better ways of implementing it. With value deflation occurring in areas with an abundance of solar, another install may not always be the solution. Value deflation is not happening everywhere, but a few million dollars in advanced PV research could eventually result in an enormous payback in our fight against fossil fuel reliance.