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Michael Valerino, winner of the 2021 Clean Energy Prize, is a PhD student in civil and environmental engineering whose interdisciplinary team is delivering an interactive, data-driven platform to reduce solar energy losses caused by dust. A year after winning the Clean Energy Prize, he shares thoughts about his team’s progress.

Tell us about the progress you and your collaborators have made this year. How has your work evolved?  

Our models that optimize the cleaning schedules of dirty solar panels have been validated at sites across the world. Depending on where you are, the impacts of air pollution can decrease energy production to a few percent per year, to a few percent a day. It is exciting to see our models working from North Carolina to Northern Africa! This work, initially part of my PhD research, is now being transformed into a software to bring the science to the industry. Our startup, Solar Unsoiled, is now a fully incorporated company and things are looking up for us!

It has been incredible to work with the solar industry. It is not only exciting for us to have confirmation that there is a need for what we are doing, but to be able to build our products alongside the industry is allowing us to create the best possible solution that will solve the problems caused by dirty solar panels. 

How have the Clean Energy Prize and other Duke programs and resources impacted your work?  

The Energy Initiative and the Innovation and Entrepreneurship teams have been so supportive. The resources have been great, and the mentorship opportunities make Duke an awesome place to found a startup. The Clean Energy Prize was really the first opportunity that put Solar Unsoiled “on the map”—and the resulting waterfall from winning the prize has been instrumental is getting us rolling. People in my network reached out with industry professionals they knew, and I even had some Duke alums reach out offering help. These valuable connections have really helped us build our product alongside our industry partners.  

What new challenges and opportunities have you had this year?  

Entrepreneurship is so different from research. It has been challenging, energizing, and invigorating climbing up the steep learning curve. A PhD is all about focusing tighter and tighter on a specific subject and becoming an expert on it. With this startup (ad)venture I have really had to step back and learn from the ground up. It is amazing to have the insights from the PhD be something that the renewable energy industry has a need for—it has made the work worth it.   

What are the next steps for your work?  

We are currently working to finish out our angel round of funding and expand our team. Our application is nearing the point we can take it to market, and the folks in the industry are eager to have our solution. It is a wild ride to build something from the ground up, and I am excited to keep building traction.   

What advice would you give Duke students interested in advancing a renewable energy future?  

Involving renewable energy—what an amazing time to get into it. Not just for the career potential, but for the opportunity to really make a difference. We (humans) are at such a critical point in deciding what the future will look like. It seems like there are two paths we can go down—one bright, one not so much. Our brighter path is so possible, but it is going to take people who are passionate about positive change. I have worked with enough Duke students who share my passion to be very optimistic.   

Involving entrepreneurship—I would highly recommend going for it and going for it now. Take the jump, what do you have to lose?