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Alumnus finds ways to harness solar power

MEGHAN THOMASSEN | Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Patrick McCullough, CEO of Amonix, the world leader in solar system efficiency, spoke on renewable energy and entrepreneurship Tuesday in the Montgomery Auditorium in LaFortune.

McCullough graduated from Notre Dame in 1995 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and was one of the first two engineers to unite the MBA program with an engineering degree.

Amonix is the industry leader in the design and manufacturing of utility-scale solar power systems, McCullough said. The company strives to be on the cutting edge of semiconductors and optics, while staying connected with the business side of energy, he said.

McCullough said Vahan Garboushian, the founder and CTO of Amonix, pioneered concentrating photovoltaics (CPV),  which is why Amonix’s main advantage is incorporating optics with leading semiconductor solutions, while optimizing power path and dual access tracking accuracy.

McCullough said even with this technological breakthrough Amonix is still restrained by the limits of the overall energy market and the solar energy industry within it.

“Even if you have the most efficient solar equipment, great innovation cannot happen without the macroeconomics of energy,” McCullough said.

McCullough said solar energy is one of the fastest growing industry in the world, but it has slow, steady, returns compared to other sectors. While coal, oil and gas fuels two-thirds of the world’s demand for energy, solar power only comprises a fraction of one percent.

“Solar’s penetration is a joke compared to other forms of energy,” he said. “It hasn’t had significant traction to date.”

In terms of growth from 2005 to 2010, however, solar power has seen a 52.7 percent increase, he said. Solar power will see more jobs over the next four years, especially in CPV.

“But a solar company’s success has nothing to do with these numbers,” McCullough said. “It has more to do with the market that’s made in specific locations throughout the world.”

The lowest cost of energy wins, McCullough said. In order to lower their cost of energy, companies must reduce both the cost of ownership and improve energy production, he said.

Amonix had to respond to a dynamic market over the past five years, McCullough said. The company scaled up in 2011 to implement their solar system technology, but when Chinese government subsidies increased, the market price fell through the floor, “killing a lot of solar companies.” Forced to cut back drastically to survive, Amonix closed its plants and laid off employees in an effort to restructure.

“This is the hardest stuff that a startup has to do: to commercialize in a dynamic marketplace, invest in research and development, make and sell our own equipment,” he said. “The fact that we are alive is impressive.”

McCullough said activist groups such as Greenpeace risk life and limb to prevent large oil companies from damaging the environment, but there are other ways to make the world a better place.

“If you invent the technology to disrupt the oil and gas business, that will fundamentally change things,” he said.

McCullough said he worked at Ford Motor Company and Berkshire Hathaway before entering the energy industry. When he graduated from Notre Dame, he said his top career goal centered on salary, but eventually he asked himself about the greater meaning of his work.

“Whether you’re doing technical or commercial work, you can do something you’re proud of,” he said. “You can make a difference.”

Contact Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu