The venture’s goal is two-fold: to increase Arizona’s chances of landing new solar-based businesses and to spur technology research that could ultimately make solar power cheaper and more readily available to the masses.
In establishing the lab, ASU joins the growing tide of individuals and firms banking on sun-based power in a big way.
Researchers believe solar is on the verge of a great breakthrough that will make it the go-to energy source for the next generation.
“Everyone wants a piece of it, and everyone is investing in it,” said Rob Melnick, executive director and chief operating officer of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. “This will give ASU the opportunity to pull together all the things that will substantially speed development of new technologies.”
The new lab is a collaboration of the university’s sustainability institute and the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and will pull together researchers across ASU’s many campuses.
It will be housed on both the Tempe and Mesa campuses and cost between $2 million and $3 million to get up and running.
The sun shines in Arizona more than 300 days a year, making the state uniquely positioned to capitalize on solar energy.
But the state hasn’t done so, at least when it comes to attracting companies already producing essential solar-energy components.
Last month, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council announced that in the last year, at least nine companies that make solar equipment had passed over Arizona and chosen instead to locate new manufacturing facilities in neighboring states.
The economic council’s President and CEO Barry Broome estimates those projects have cost the state more than 3,800 jobs, $2.3 billion in investment, and $73 million in state and local revenues over the next decade.
He and others were pushing a proposal that would help lure solar manufacturers to the state via tax incentives, but it failed to gain the required support in the Legislature.
The economic council is still talking to 11 other solar companies that are considering the state for new solar manufacturing plants, and Broome is hoping the new ASU lab and newly hired personnel will help provide a carrot to lure them here.
As part of its new effort, the university has brought in several prominent industry figures from the University of Delaware who have extensive experience in solar-cell technology.
Broome says their presence at ASU “absolutely changes our dialogue” with the companies the economic council is trying to lure to the state.
“They have either done work (with) or knew the leaders of two thirds of them,” he said. “They are going to give us an audience with these companies in a much more meaningful way.”
The university is also bringing in George Maracas as the initiative’s chief operating officer.
Maracas has years of experience in the private sector in the fields of molecular technology and nanotechnology and has a wide range of commercial and industry contacts, according to ASU.
New research, less cost
Solar-research efforts are on the rise.
Emerging Energy Research, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, estimated in a December report that about $20 billion will be spent on solar-power research in the next five years.
Much of it will focus on ways to make solar power more efficient and therefore more affordable.
Even with tax credits, small rooftop solar systems currently cost in excess of $10,000; in most cases, it takes upwards of seven to 10 years to recoup those up-front expenses.
“Any research that is focused on bringing the cost of solar down, anywhere in the supply chain, is all going to help,” said Monique Hanis, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries association. “Right now, the industry feels that solar should be on par with traditional fossil fuels in about a decade.”
ASU researchers are focusing on both existing and unproven technologies through a variety of government grants and industry partnerships, Melnick said.
For example, photovoltaic panels are the current backbone of most solar-based systems. They are also a 25-year-old technology. Researchers are currently looking for ways to make them more efficient, so that less of the sun’s power is lost when raw energy is transferred into electricity.
The university also is partnering with companies like British Petroleum on projects to try to “mimic nature” using plants and bacteria in combination with the sun’s energy.
Maracas said the university has about $2 million in commitments for 2008 and expects additional grants to come in the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, the state’s other universities are working on their own breakthroughs.
The University of Arizona in Tucson established AzRISE last year; its researchers are looking at how to better generate and store solar energy, among other things.
Northern Arizona University has made strides in the field too. A chemistry professor there is studying cobalt as a cheaper way to capture light for solar power.
ASU, however, says its strength will come from the fact that it will have so many people working together on a variety of disciplines within the industry.
“We may not be better than one university doing one thing,” Melnick said. “But ASU has it all.”
He added, “When you have this much action, this much going on with a commercialized technology, someone is going to have a breakthrough.
“It will absolutely happen.”