Featured Student Profile

Adam Byrnes, Erb ’14, Finding Technological Solutions for Sustainability

Technology holds the key to sustainability, says Adam Byrnes, Erb ’14, who has helped to commercialize several innovations in the field of renewable energy during his prior professional career and current graduate studies at the Erb Institute.  “If we replace the technology we use now with more-efficient new technology, we can improve the way we utilize our natural resources,” he explains, comparing the advantages of say, a Tesla electric vehicle─which has a smaller carbon footprint─to the disadvantages of a conventional gas-guzzling car or truck. “Similarly, we can use innovative software, such as dashboards and phone applications, to manage our energy needs remotely and increase our energy efficiency.” Software products that allow people to work from home rather than commute and to share and edit documents online, reducing paper usage, are other examples of how innovative technology can drive increased sustainability, he adds.

Byrnes received an Erb Renewable Energy Scholarship in 2012 that enabled him to research and publish a written report on, solar crowdsourcing, an emerging renewable-energy model that revolves around encouraging communities to invest in a locally placed solar array. Community residents benefit from the energy produced by the array as well as from any return they make by selling surplus energy to the grid. Byrnes put his Ross School business-planning and marketing skills into practice for several months at Arborlight, a University of Michigan clean-energy start-up headquartered in the U-M’s Venture Accelerator. The company, led by Michigan professors Max Shtein and P.C. Ku, has developed patent-pending technology for a long-lasting, mercury-free, LED-based replacement for linear fluorescent tubes. Byrnes and fellow Erb Institute colleague, Daniel Gerding helped Arborlight increase energy efficiency in lighting. Arborlight estimates these efficiencies to eliminate five metric tons of mercy from the U/S/ waste-processing stream annually. The team won a $2,500 prize for the “Most Disruptive Idea” at the 2012 Clean Energy Venture Challenge.

Simultaneously, Byrnes pursued renewable-energy solutions for the 1.3 billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity. His master’s project team, which included Emilia Sibley, Sabrina Sullivan and Jimmy Ward, all Erb ’14, worked collaboratively with the Global BrightLight Foundation, a nonprofit organization established by Duke Energy executives to distribute solar power to underserved populations. “We assessed the market and customers, talked to other players and lenders in the field, and put together a business plan for distributing a solar-powered lamp,” says Byrnes, whose corporate liaison was Alanya Schofield, Erb ’11, a commercial associate at Duke. The team’s efforts led to a $1 million investment from the Global Sustainable Energy Partnership and the distribution of 40,000 lamps in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Byrnes’ master’s project served as a springboard to a 12-week summer internship last year with Simpa Networks, an early-stage technology start-up based in Bangalore, India. The company is pioneering a prepaid meter system to furnish electricity on a pay-as-you-go basis to the estimated 400 million low-income India residents who currently rely on kerosene and other types of fuel for energy. “My job was to help the company evaluate new markets for their technology and gather input from customers,” Byrnes says. “It was a great experience that changed my perspective on the world. I wouldn’t have been able to have that experience without support from the Erb and William Davidson Institutes”.

This summer, Byrnes stayed closer to his southern California roots by accepting a corporate internship at Microsoft in Seattle, where he is conducting a market-entry study for Yammer, the company’s newest enterprise social-network product for companies. However, even in a more traditional corporate setting sustainability and entrepreneurship are still uppermost in his mind. He anticipates this dual focus will continue to shape his post-Erb career whether he takes a full-time position with Microsoft, returns to work in the green energy sector or pivots into politics and public policy.