Quants of Solar

You might see sunshine, but James Kocher, Project Manager at Locus Energy, sees data. Lots of it. A graduate of the Earth Institute Sustainability Management (MS) program at Columbia University, Kocher recalls the words of his professor, "Director Steven Cohen would frequently remind us... 'you can't manage what you don't measure' and that is what big data is ultimately going to solve." Photovoltaics, what most people still call "solar panels," are gaining market share. In the first quarter of 2015 more than half of all new generation capacity brought online was solar, eclipsing natural gas. As solar power scales up, managing efficiency becomes important. Solar panels can be precisely controlled and monitored akin to a computer network to increase performance. As costs go down, more people adopt. "With regard to solar, big data is the key to increasing system production," Kocher explains.

The confluence of sustainability and big data is evident in solar, where new advances have come from the semi-conductor industry. However, because sustainability is often associated with a back-to-nature lifestyle, the general public is often not aware how technical it is. Kocher, for example, became interested in sustainability after working as a volunteer medical technician while still in college. Volunteering reflected a concern for his community and giving back, but it also taught crisis management. "My shifts on the Ambulance Corp. gave me the confidence to realize that I could evaluate and manage complex and sometimes chaotic situations at an emergency scene." Like managing an ambulance corp., navigating a mounting global climate crisis is requiring a technical bent. Corporations and governments find themselves turning to professionals that can oversee and optimize complex systems. Such staffing is often drawing on people with backgrounds that may have intersected with Silicon Valley but, at some point, changed direction toward sustainability and environmental science. You might've met Kocher years ago at an Apple Genius Bar. Troubleshooting hardware and software soon lead him to Apple Store inventory management where greener shipping, packaging, and supply chains is a growing concern.

His interest in this area lead him to return to school at the Earth Institute where his study included modeling complex systems. After a few years at Mars, where some of his work revolved around the design and implementation of more sustainable packaging, he joined Locus. Kocher's vision of our rapidly expanding solar infrastructure isn't just about peak performance, but economics as well. Precise and accurate streamlining of energy systems also allows for better risk management. Stable investments in solar assets will propel the industry as a whole. Kocher predicts "securitized loans or bonds accurately priced based on risk using the historical data provided by companies like Locus Energy."

A decade ago, it might have been easy to imagine a mind like Kocher's ending up on Wall Street. A change in attitude, a dissemination of new technologies, different opportunities, and challenges are creating new applications for analytic talents. A significant difference, however, is Kocher's ambition to solve environmental problems. You can't, after all, bail out a climate crisis.