July 13, 2010
Is Arizona prepared to take the lead in the shift to renewable energy, using its greatest natural resource – the sun? A major research effort led by Arizona State University and initially funded through a grant from Science Foundation Arizona is trying to answer that question by analyzing how best to use solar and other sustainable energy throughout the state.
A top official from the U.S. Department of Energy, Undersecretary Kristina Johnson, recently visited the project, and other VIPs are coming soon. The hope is that the Az SMART project will provide an example for other states to follow in President Obama’s plan to reduce emissions, reduce foreign oil dependence and create jobs in a clean technology economy. The project includes tools to benefit homeowners, businesses and the leaders who need to make informed decisions about which power-generation methods to use and where to locate new facilities, such as solar fields.
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“Most of the talk about solar energy has focused on how to make it more efficient and technically viable,” said professor Tim James, director of research and consulting at the L. William Seidman Research Institute at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business, who is coordinating work by economists, engineers and others on this project. “There’s been little comprehensive thought about how to put solar and other renewable energy into place to help the economy. Things like state permits, tax credits and other incentives need to be carefully considered, along with technical feasibility and potential locations, so we can all get the most bang for our buck.”
Az SMART stands for Arizona Solar Market Analysis and Research Tool. Part of the effort is aimed at drawing solar and other renewable energy companies to Arizona to benefit the state’s economy. Another part focuses on interactive decision-making tools that can be used by everyone from the governor to individual homeowners for information and guidance.
These tools will include a website where homeowners and business owners can fill in information about their needs and costs, and find out whether solar energy would be a good choice for them. They also include aids for state policymakers and business leaders who decide whether to shift the types of energy utilized across the state, looking at issues like environmental impact and job creation.
“It’s a huge enterprise essentially mapping out the state in its entirety and determining the effects of something like replacing a coal plant as it comes to the end of its useful life with enough renewable energy,” James said. “Obviously, it’s beneficial for our state’s energy security to use solar, wind and other energy sources readily available here, instead of importing fossil fuels. However, we have to determine which types of energy, including existing sources, make the most sense in different areas of the state to ensure reliable, cost-efficient power for everyone.”
Az SMART research has already identified large areas that would be appropriate for solar and alternative energy facilities, building on the number of potential sites identified by the federal Bureau of Land Management. These additional locations could possibly provide enough power to supply the entire western United States and bring in significant revenue to Arizona.
"The integration of geographic information systems (GIS), technology, grid operations and economic data into one interactive visual decision tool will be invaluable in helping energy decision-makers transform Arizona's energy infrastructure to one that is cleaner, more resilient and economically viable,” said William C. Harris, president and chief executive officer of Science Foundation Arizona. "We are proud to have recognized the need and originated support for this effort, which is focused on critical concepts, such as how to integrate the new technology into the state’s existing power grid.”
Researchers at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering are looking at the technical side of the shift to renewable energy, including how to achieve “plugging” the new technology into the state’s power grid.
Professor Vijay Vittal, the Ira A. Fulton Chair Professor at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, explained, “The primary focus of this analysis is to ascertain the viability of the transmission grid with increased penetration of solar resources and to also determine the needed transmission reinforcement to achieve the required reliability performance.”
ASU’s Decision Theater, within the Global Institute of Sustainability, is being utilized to test out various scenarios, using floor-to-ceiling video screens and other 360-degree mechanisms designed to immerse the participants in decision-making exercises. The Decision Theater has spearheaded the complex solar siting and integration aspects of Az SMART.
“Where we actually place our renewable energy systems has huge implications for the success of sustainable energy deployment in Arizona and beyond,” said George Basile, School of Sustainability professor and Decision Theater executive director.
Az SMART is funded by several partners, including APS, BrightSource Energy, Salt River Project, Science Foundation Arizona, Tucson Electric Power, ViaSol Energy Solutions and software maker CreateASoft, Inc. More funding sources are actively being sought. The three-year project is aimed at both economic development and maximizing public education and information about the shift to renewable energy.
“As current energy policy moves towards more renewable energy it is important to understand the benefits, challenges and opportunities associated with this change in direction,” said Phil Smithers, manager of renewable energy technical services at APS. “The ability to address these challenges in a comprehensive and coordinated forum will be very beneficial to stakeholders and decision-makers moving forward.”
“While the benefits of harnessing Arizona’s vast solar resource can be enormous, significant issues remain about how to best integrate this resource into a large and complex electric grid,” said SRP senior research engineer Don Pelley. “Through our Az SMART collaboration with other knowledgeable scientists, economists and engineers, we are confident we can begin to find the solutions to these challenges.”
Arizona State University has demonstrated a high commitment to sustainability through efforts such as creation of the first School of Sustainability in the nation and the installation of large solar fields on the roofs of several campus parking structures. The Princeton Review recently named ASU one of the “greenest” universities in the country.