Highlight all of ASU's renewable energy research.

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Big power from a small container

November 28, 2018

With a $2 million grant from the Office of Naval Research, an ASU professor is working to improve on his solar-powered, electrical grid-in-a-box

Refugee camps. Disaster areas. Remote military outposts.

An Arizona State University engineering professor is working on improving microgrids for use in far-flung corners of the world where power doesn’t reach.

Microgrids are small isolated power systems, such as on oil rigs, in rural villages or at military expeditionary camps. Nathan Johnson created a solar-powered grid contained in a shipping container.

“Microgrids are often described as an on-grid system that can isolate,” said Johnson, an assistant professor in the Polytechnic School, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. In summer 2018, Johnson received a $2 million, two-year grant from the Office of Naval Research.

“The Navy is often the first to respond in emergency situations around the world: natural disasters or conflict,” he said. “As a consequence, getting them more equipped with services and capabilities is going to improve the impact for humanitarian welfare. Secondly, the national defense strategy, as written by the Department of Defense, is looking for more of what they classify as dual-use technologies, where the research has a benefit to the defense sector but also to the private sector.”

He’s working on four projects within the study:

1. Reducing vulnerabilities in microgrids.

2. Improving cybersecurity.

3. Creating and testing controls for multiple microgrids.

4. Creating water and power solutions for rapidly deployable medical facilities for military expeditions, disaster response and humanitarian aid. 

Half of the prototype of the medical facility is complete; the remainder will be finished in February. The unit will have a 10-kilowatt power system and a water treatment system capable of cleaning about 500 gallons an hour. The health care side is for primary care, with a triage area, blood testing capability, medicine distribution and outpatient services. The unit will provide healthcare, power and water to 12,000 South Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda.

“The focus of this work in a general form is doing additional research, but then focusing from the applied to commercialization,” Johnson said. “In all four areas we’re doing simulations and testing out at the Poly campus and then we have a physical one-acre grid modernization microgrid testbed where we’ll fabricate and test devices.”

At the end of the project, all four technologies will have a prototype which will be field-deployed and evaluated in the Grid Modernization and Microgrid Test Bed. “We have commercial partners to help facilitate that,” Johnson said.

By 2020, microgrids are expected to be a $40 billion industry worldwide. Part of the grant goes to technical training, with seven programs reaching 220 people in person and 410 people online. Approximately 50 percent of those trained will be veterans. Another 10,000 people will be reached in regular monthly podcasts on energy and cybersecurity. A total of 20 hours of online microgrid training will be provided free to the Navy in perpetuity.

It’s an opportunity to get into a burgeoning market.

“About 95 percent of the growth in global energy demand over the next 15 years is going to come from emerging markets,” Johnson said. “Training people to provide a high-quality skill set, intellectual engineering or design services that is broadly applicable to anywhere in the world also provides those individuals with a leg up for a type of market or a type of work with an international company that they may not have typically been exposed to in their standard university curriculum.”

Strategic advice will be gained from 12 project advisors including electric utilities, venture funds, strategy groups, technology providers, Naval and Department of Defense labs and government agencies.

Top photo: Assistant Professor Nathan Johnson poses for a portrait at the Polytechnic campus on Oct. 25, 2018. Johnson's work focuses on solar technology and how to innovate energy resources, smart networks and off-grid solutions in the Laboratory for Energy And Power Solutions (LEAPS) lab. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


Power and Energy Scholarship recognizes 8 ASU engineering students

November 13, 2018

Eight Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering students with a passion for sustainable power and energy were selected from a pool of 548 applicants to receive the IEEE Power and Energy Society scholarship.

In the past seven years, 37 of these scholarships have been awarded to Arizona State University students — earning ASU more Power and Energy Society scholarships than any other university in the awards’ lifetime. Power lines Photo courtesy of Unsplash Download Full Image

The Power and Energy Society (PES) scholarship recognizes undergraduate electrical engineering students with strong GPAs, distinctive extracurricular activities and a commitment to exploring the power and energy field.

“These two awards are national awards that are highly competitive,” said Gerald Heydt, Regents' Professor at the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. “The students recognized will carry this honor throughout their careers, and there is no doubt that the recognition marks a high point in their work.”

The competitive selection process, from which less than 40 percent of the applicants are selected, requires students to submit essays and letters of recommendation, and judges look for a student’s passion about advancing power research. This year, the award granted the 210 recipients a financial award to fund their studies, one year of IEEE PES student membership and the opportunity to be mentored by leading professionals in their industry.

“Besides the generous financial support, I received recognition from the largest power engineering networking and standards group in the world,” said Tobin Meyers, a recipient of the scholarship. “This advantage helped me advance my knowledge of power systems by assisting with my internship search and an all-expenses-paid trip to Boston for the 2017 IEEE PES Student Congress.”

While at the student congress, recipients had the opportunity to network with peers and professionals, visit MIT’s nuclear reactor and tour the headquarters of Doble, a power test company. Meyers’ initial recognition paved the way for two summer internships with Arizona Public Service, which served as a career experience needed to renew the award.

From the initial group of PES scholars, industry professionals and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories select the Schweitzer Meritorious Scholars. These awardees, three of whom this year are students in the Fulton Schools, gain additional recognition for their academic excellence and interest in the field.

"In my application, I talked about the growing importance of renewable energy and how that led me to pursue a career at the intersection of electrical engineering and sustainability,” said Brian Wu, a 2018 PES and Schweitzer Scholar. “It’s all about how you tie your extracurriculars or work experience into what makes you passionate about power and energy.”

IEEE, or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is the world’s largest association of technical professionals. PES scholarships are made possible due to the generous donations of individuals and corporations to the IEEE Power & Energy Society Scholarship Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

For any electrical engineering students considering applying for the scholarship, Meyers, a three-time recipient, encourages them to apply.

“Power has been stagnant for many years, but with the increasing popularity of renewable energy, the traditional grid has evolved into a complex system,” Meyers said. “This award will help you get recognized so you can begin solving these issues as well as help fund the remainder of your education.”

Student Science/Technology Writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

ASU researcher innovates solar energy technology in space

October 3, 2018

Experts predict that by 2050 we’re going to have global broadband internet satellite networks, in-orbit manufacturing, space tourism, asteroid mining and lunar and Mars bases.

More than a gigawatt of solar energy will be needed to power these activities, or the equivalent of 3.125 million photovoltaic panels. However, because it is currently the most expensive component on a satellite, scientists are looking for ways to make solar energy in space affordable — and to keep solar power systems from degrading so quickly in the extremely harsh environment of space. A gloved hand holds a flexible solar cell in a lab. Arizona State University postdoctoral researcher Stanislau "Stas" Herasimenka's startup company, Regher Solar, is developing a thin solar cell to better withstand the harsh environment of outer space. Photo courtesy of Stanislau Herasimenka Download Full Image

Arizona State University postdoctoral researcher Stanislau “Stas” Herasimenka thinks he has the solution to provide cost-effective and efficient, next-generation solar power for space applications.

Exploring the next big thing in solar

Silicon heterojunction technology uses a low-temperature method to deposit layers of amorphous silicon with a high concentration of atomic hydrogen onto a crystalline silicon wafer. This method creates a solar cell that’s more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than conventional solar cells, which are manufactured using standard high-temperature methods.

Pioneered in the 1990s, silicon heterojunction technology is not new, but it’s not widely used in the commercial solar energy industry. However, it holds great promise for the future of solar energy.

In conventional solar cells, the current manufacturing efficiency is up to 21.5 percent. Herasimenka believes silicon heterojunction solar cell technology can be manufactured to attain 23 to 24 percent efficiency without increasing the cost of production.

While that would seem to be a small step, it’s actually the next giant leap the solar power industry is looking to achieve. Seeing this as as an opportunity to apply his graduate research, Herasimenka founded solar cell technology startup Regher Solar with solar industry expert Michael Reginevich.

Stuart Bowden, an associate research professor of electrical and energy engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, praised Herasimenka’s work both as a doctoral student and a postdoctoral scholar to create commercial-grade silicon heterojunction solar technology.

“When I came to ASU in 2009, Stas was our first student to complete an experimental thesis, and his passion for solar was critical to kick-start the lab,” said Bowden, Herasimenka’s doctoral research adviser. “He did extensive theoretical modeling work but he was also the one who pushed on making his research commercial. Stas has really embraced the entrepreneurial spirit at ASU and it's great he has the support to take his lab work out into the world.”

Space: The solar frontier

It's very complicated for a novel solar technology to enter the market. The current cost of a commercial solar panel is about 30 cents per watt.

At this point in its development, silicon heterojunction solar cell technology is too expensive for the terrestrial market but may be very attractive to aerospace companies.

The current leading technology of solar energy in space is in the form of tandem solar cells, which are more efficient than terrestrial solar cells (28 to 32 percent efficiency), but they cost orders of magnitude more at $100 to $500 per watt. In comparison, Regher Solar’s silicon heterojunction technology is a great deal at $1 per watt cost even with the loss of about 7 percent efficiency.

Not only is the price right, Herasimenka and his Regher Solar team have ideas in mind to make solar cells that are more resistant to the harsh environment of space that theoretically could also increase their end-of-life efficiency.

Their research caught the attention of Albuquerque, New Mexico-based SolAero Technologies and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant program, which seeks to fund technology to implement a space transport that could shuttle spacecraft from low Earth orbit to higher orbits. The area through which the transporter would operate is also where radiation is most damaging to spacecraft solar cells.

Thin is in

To address the unique challenges of providing reliable solar energy in space, Herasimenka is testing a hypothesis that Regher Solar can make silicon heterojunction solar cells extremely thin, which adds the benefit of radiation resistance.

Simulations conducted by Alex Fedoseyev — Regher Solar’s chief scientist for a previous NASA SBIR grant-funded project on which the ASU team was a subcontractor — show that when a silicon solar cell is very thin, high-energy protons can go through the solar cell without damaging it.

“In some conditions, it may be practically transparent to high-energy particles,” Herasimenka said. “Besides, in a thin cell, electrons generated by light don’t have to travel as far to be extracted and even if space radiation creates a defect in a solar cell, electrons will have much less chance to recombine through this defect, thus, increasing end-of-life efficiency of a solar cell.”

While typical solar cells are 160 to 180 micrometers thick, Herasimenka and Regher Solar are targeting 50-micrometer or even 10-micrometer-thick solar cells.

Manufacturing thin, easily breakable solar cells requires special equipment that makes production more expensive than 30 cents per watt, but this isn’t a problem for aerospace companies that presently pay 500 times more for a solar cell.

Another feature of Regher Solar’s technology is its very low weight. Because every ounce increases the cost of a space launch, solar cells up to 15 times thinner would reduce space solar energy costs even more.

As part of the SBIR grant project, Regher Solar will work with SolAero Technologies to test solar cells of different thicknesses to find the optimum balance of thinness and durability against radiation.

If Regher Solar can pull it off, the company will be well on its way to helping the space economy meet its power needs.

A quest to impact the solar industry

Herasimenka came to ASU as a doctoral student when Bowden and Christiana Honsberg — now a professor of electrical engineering — joined ASU from the University of Delaware as ASU was beginning to launch its major solar energy initiative in 2009.

In 2011, the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, or QESST, was established, with Honsberg as its director, to address the "terawatt challenge" and develop advanced clean energy technologies to help raise the living standards of people around the globe living in energy poverty. It is a collaborative consortium of eight universities, more than 100 students and 30 faculty working with industry to find energy solutions.

“One out of five people in the world live in the dark due to the high cost of electricity," Honsberg said. "QESST is focused on reducing solar costs while simultaneously improving its efficiency to the benefit of over 1 billion people living in the dark. Regher Solar is one of eight QESST spin-out companies making an impact in the market and we’re proud to have helped catalyze its formation.”

Herasimenka conducted his doctoral research at QESST and stayed on as a postdoctoral researcher working on a variety of projects.

He co-founded Regher Solar with the help of QESST’s initiative to encourage and expose its students to innovation mentoring resources at ASU and beyond.

QESST Industry and Innovation Director John Mitchell helped Herasimenka develop his startup pitch and business plan as well as connect him with resources to help make his venture successful.

Mitchell said Herasimenka is “a perfect storm” for QESST and its innovation goals.

“Regher is developing intellectual property, transferring knowledge, bringing technology to the marketplace and giving back to QESST,” Mitchell said. “When we present to the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy we talk about innovation in an abstract way. It's great to be able to show specific and concrete examples such as Regher."

Though being an entrepreneur wasn’t Herasimenka’s original career goal, it has turned into something he very much enjoys.

“Initially the company was founded to go for more (research grant) funding, but then, later on, I became more and more excited about the business world and got more deeply involved," Herasimenka said. "Now I think that’s what I want to do in my life."

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Meeting the UN's Global Goals village by village

September 28, 2018

ASU community is working on sustainable solutions to global problems by starting with specifics

In 2015, world leaders agreed to establish 17 goals to achieve a better world by 2030. An end to poverty and hunger. Clean water and energy. Gender equality and decent work. Together, they are called the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

And when they’re met, it's remarkable.

Arizona State University faculty members working on projects that fulfill the goals have seen it in places stretching from Pakistan to Pacific islands.

Here’s a look at three Global Goals-related projects coming out of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society: 

Fuel from a pest in Nepal

The Nepalese government has established buffer zones around their national parks so local people can gather firewood or fodder for their animals. In 2007, the buffer zone around Chitwan National Park began to be invaded by a vine similar to kudzu. One plant was recorded that year. Seven years later, it covered 75 to 100 percent of the forest surveyed. The vine, called mile-a-minute leaf, can grow very rapidly within a week, and it can cover the forest and kill the trees. The Nepalese jungle is trees and grasses, not vines, so the vine changes the dynamics. It creates extremely dense cover in the jungle. Women go to the jungle every single day for about two hours to collect wood and grasses.

“In that time you’re really risking your life because there are so many animals there that are threatening,” said Associate Professor Netra Chhetri. “In that way it’s taking more time to collect resources because where they used to go is now covered in the vine. They have to go deeper and deeper into the jungle to find the things they need. … We want to convert this problem into a solution through bio char.”

Bio char is charcoal used as soil enrichment.

“This charcoal is better than the coal we mine,” said Chhetri, who also is part of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

In June, Chhetri began working with 29 communities in the buffer zone surrounding Chitwan National Park. “We engaged with them and went with them to the forest,” he said.

They built charcoal kilns, collected heaps of the vine, and created a solution to several problems.

The bio char is a source of fuel. It contributes to the health of the forest. It adds nutrients to the soil and helps retain moisture. Chhetri calls it a low-cost, high-impact solution to multiple social problems.

“It increases the productivity and farmers don’t have to buy these expensive chemical fertilizers,” he said. “The reaction was ‘Wow.’”

The work isn’t over. Chhetri is working on how to scale the solution and how to improve collecting the vine. “My job is to hone in on this problem.”

Socially driven, clean, cheap power in Pakistan

Along Pakistan's Afghan border in the mountainous north is an extremely poor part of the country where villages don’t have electricity — or don’t use it because it’s too expensive.

The provincial government has been building a series of small-scale hydropower projects in an attempt to bring electricity generation to local communities at a price they can afford.

In a collaboration with the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar, Associate Professor Clark Miller traveled to Pakistan in July.

Miller went in with a team from the university to collect data on the social and sustainability outcomes of the hydro projects, using a methodology developed at ASU in order to improve the design of future projects. The province has built a couple hundred of the projects and plan to build a couple thousand more over the next few years.

“The design specs for one of the projects contained 50 pages of engineering details — and four bullet points on how it would fit into the community,” Miller said.

“What our framework does is flip that around and ask the question to begin with: How are people going to actually use this energy to make a difference in their lives? To create new income? To improve their ability to deliver healthcare? Or to advance any one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: improve food security, access clean water, improve their agricultural productivity? How are they actually going to use the energy to make that difference in their lives? How do you design the technical part of the project in order to make it possible for them to use the energy in that way? It recognizes that effective energy systems have to be both socially and technically designed.”

Seven master’s degree students from the Pakistani university are at ASU this fall as part of an exchange-student program, training in social data analysis. A report on the project will be produced in May.

A library in a backpack, where there’s no power or internet

Obviously, remote communities without electricity — or internet access — don’t have the same educational advantages shared by the industrial West.  

Enter Assistant Professor Laura Hosman and SolarSPELL, a portable, solar-powered digital library that comes with its own digital Wi-Fi hotspot, able to function without electricity or existing internet connectivity.

“A library that can fit inside a backpack,” it’s full of educational resources. The only thing needed to access the information is a laptop, smartphone or iPad. The information in SolarSPELL is curated to include as much localized information as possible. This allows the device to teach things like science and mathematics, but also to preserve local indigenous knowledge.

“This project hits on a lot of ASU's charter aspirations,” said Hosman, who holds a joint appointment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “I'm all for engaging globally and providing access to those who don't have it.”

Today there are 220 SolarSPELL digital libraries in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, Rwanda and South Sudan. They are used by teachers and Peace Corps volunteers.

"Since we received the SolarSPELL digital library, students do not miss school,” said the dean of students at a Rwandan primary school where SolarSPELL was introduced. “Previously, there were students who would come in the morning but leave in the afternoon. Now, we find them in the morning and the afternoon. … They say, 'If I don't go to school, I won't use the SolarSPELL.' When they arrive they ask teachers to use the SolarSPELL library. They are so interested.” 

Both biochar in Nepal and SolarSPELL are projects in GlobalResolve, a service abroad program with a student focus, headquartered in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU.

Top photo: United Nations headquarters in New York. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


Harnessing the sun for fuel

ASU LightWorks hire brings new energy to ASU

September 10, 2018

Decades ago, oilmen had little interest in natural gas, the byproduct of crude extracted from the earth. So, they burned it off, like so many lit torches atop Texas’s oil fields. Jim Miller’s grandfather recalled reading the evening paper by their light. Miller, too, recalls living in their shadows. Now he’s living in the Valley of the Sun, working to develop a different kind of energy industry. 

The native Texan says he wanted to be a chemical engineer because the successful people he knew as a child either worked in chemical plants or they worked for NASA. “That was it,” he said.  Jim Miller (second from right) with colleagues at Sandia National Laboratories and the CR5 thermochemical reactor. Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories Download Full Image

But years later, he found himself working not in a chemical plant nor at NASA but instead thinking up ways to create and harness alternative energy — energy gleaned not from fossil fuels but from renewable sources.

He has also worked on radioactive waste cleanup, catalysis, desalination and automobile exhaust treatment, all while serving as a research scientist at Sandia National Laboratories. 

“I’ve had this weird career,” said Miller.

He is a chemical engineer by training. He is also a recent arrival at ASU LightWorks, where he once again will be thinking up ways to create and harness alternative energy — using sunlight, of course.

“Our focus is solar thermal chemistry,” said Miller. “The idea is to make a solar fuel.” 

Plants and bacteria have been making their own solar fuel through photosynthesis for billions of years. Miller and his colleagues want to mimic that process.

“Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air,” said Miller. “They take water out of the ground, and through some biological magic, plants are made using the sun as the energy source. The carbon dioxide and the water are the building blocks.”

Over a long time, some of those plants turn into fossil fuels: coal, natural gas or oil. When we burn fossil fuels, we reverse the process of photosynthesis, dumping millions of years’ worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere much faster than it can be removed by plants.

So Miller and his colleagues are aiming to use a thermochemical cycle to ensure there is no net release of carbon dioxide. The cycle begins when a metal oxide is heated until it gives up some of its oxygen. At lower temperatures, the material wants that oxygen restored. If exposed to carbon dioxide or steam, the material will take an oxygen atom from those molecules to yield carbon monoxide or hydrogen, respectively.

Carbon monoxide and hydrogen are both energy-rich molecules, and they can be reacted with one another (in a separate process) to form more conventional hydrocarbon fuels, such as jet fuel, gasoline and diesel.

“You cycle between these two reactions,” explained Miller. “That’s why it’s called a thermochemical cycle. You use heat to drive the reaction, but it’s two steps. So there’s an inherent separation built into it. There’s a lot of good things about it, but there’s also a lot of complicating factors.”

The good things include the possibility to emulate photosynthesis; that is, to store sunlight as hydrocarbon fuels, but much more efficiently and with much less water consumption. 

The complicating factors — some that remain to be discovered — are why Miller is joining the LightWorks team and the faculty in the School of Sustainability as a professor of practice. He will be working closely with Ivan Ermanoski, an experimental physicist and also a new arrival to ASU LightWorks, and Ellen Stechel, co-director of LightWorks and an expert in solar thermochemistry. Like Miller, both Ermanoski and Stechel worked at Sandia National Laboratories before coming to ASU.

“We are very excited that Jim is joining us in LightWorks and for the opportunity to build a platform program based on solar thermochemistry — for fuels, but also to make ammonia, to store energy and to produce clean water. I appreciate his ability to make complex concepts easy to understand and his unwavering dedication to solving important problems,” said Stechel.

“When we first envisioned making fuels from sunlight and thin air, there were people telling us that it is impossible, that we were violating the laws of thermodynamics,” she continued. “This did not faze or discourage Jim. There are challenges to making this a reality but it is not only possible (that is, not even new anymore) it is plausible. The person you want working to demonstrate that it can be made efficient, robust, scalable and economic is Jim. We expect many new collaborations with a range of faculty that engage with LightWorks, especially through our Sustainable Fuels and Products working group.”

Reflecting on what would be the ideal outcome for this bold, highly experimental endeavor, Miller said, “The perfect outcome is that we have closed the cycle on carbon so we’re not extracting fossil sunlight and putting it (the fossil carbon) back into the environment, maintaining the advantages of modern society, but staying mindful of future generations.”

This research is funded in part by the Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Science writer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications

Summer research sizzles at ASU

Students gain valuable skills in the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program

August 23, 2018

This summer, more than 50 undergraduate students from across the nation studied in labs at Arizona State University to develop solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. 

The students are part of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program that provides valuable educational experiences for college students through active participation in science, engineering and education research at ultramodern facilities. REU projects offer universities a chance to tap a diverse talent pool and broaden student participation in use-inspired research initiatives with meaningful impact. student holding a light illuminating object on table “My favorite part of the REU experience has been working with my teammates and mentors. Getting the chance to collaborate with others, particularly people who specialize in a different subject or major, has taught me a lot,” said Jacquelyn Schmidt, a major in engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU Download Full Image

By integrating research and education, REU aims to attract students to science and engineering programs, retain them and prepare them for careers in those fields.

NSF is interested in increasing the number of women, minorities and people with disabilities who participate in research, and particular attention is paid to recruiting students from underrepresented groups. REU sites across the country are also encouraged to involve students from communities and academic institutions where research programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are limited, including two-year colleges.

REU students participated in integrative, hands-on research with a focus on bio-geotechnical engineering, drinking water and industrial wastewater treatment, sensor device design and algorithm development, solar energy and photovoltaics. Participants helped develop solutions for a broad scope of challenges, from facilitating access to clean water to restoring degraded landscapes and revolutionizing electricity generation.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering hosted REU programs this summer at sites in the NSF Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics, the NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment, the Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center and the NSF Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center.

REU provides the building blocks to succeed

Jeremy Nez, a civil engineering major at Scottsdale Community College, has been interested in creating sustainable, resilient and environmentally compatible solutions for geotechnical infrastructure since he took a tour of the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics with the Phoenix Indian Center as a high school student.

Last year, he participated in the center’s Young Scholars program for his first exposure to research. This summer, he returned to the center to complete the REU program.

Nez worked on a bio-inspired process to stabilize and control clay swelling, teaming with Associate Professor Claudia Zapata, postdoctoral research associate Hamed Khodadadi Tirkolaei and graduate mentor Hani Alharbi, a doctoral student in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering.

Many types of infrastructure are built with a clay foundation beneath them. When some clay foundation soils come in contact with water, they expand dramatically. Clay swelling is problematic because it contributes to cracked foundations, walls, driveways, swimming pools and roads — costing millions of dollars each year.

Nez helped establish protocols for conducting efficient and economically competitive stabilization of problematic clay soils by comparing compaction characteristics of clay-treated soil with plant-based silica extracted from rice husk. Results of this research will help prevent and mitigate damage caused by clay swelling.

“I liked how the REU program was interdisciplinary,” Nez said. “You have biologists and geologists as well as civil, geotechnical and mechanical engineers working together to improve civilizations. There’s not just one major in this program, it’s very diverse.”

Nez’s two summers of research at the center have inspired him to transfer to ASU. He’ll start an undergraduate program in civil engineering this fall. Nez is one of four students participating in the REU program this summer who plan to transfer to the university.

six students standing

Six students from Glendale Community College, Phoenix College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Scottsdale Community College and the University of New Haven participated in the summer Research experience in the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at Arizona State University. From left to right: Ibrahim Ibrahim, Lydia Kelley, Leslie Bautista, Colleen Adams, RJ Mabry and Jeremy Nez. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Interdisciplinary experience drives plan for the future  

Jacquelyn Schmidt, a major in engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, also wanted to study at ASU based on the interdisciplinary component of the Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center REU program.

“I have a lot of interests: data science, internet of things, machine learning and electrical engineering,” Schmidt said. “The SenSIP REU was one of the only summer programs I came across that touched on all of those areas.”

Schmidt’s research project focused on reducing turtle bycatch, which happens when turtles drown from being caught in fishing nets. Schmidt said marine biology research suggests the number of sea turtles accidentally caught can be dramatically reduced with the use of light-emitting diode, or LED, lights.

“Several research groups are continuing this research today, but a clear problem has emerged,” she said. “The LED lights are battery powered. When the batteries run out, they’re just thrown into the ocean.”

Schmidt’s team included Associate Professor Blain Christen, postdoctoral fellows Mark Bailly and Martyn Fisher, Associate Professor Michael Goryll and Assistant Research Professor Jesse Senko. They sought to find a more sustainable solution to this problem by using renewable energy to power LEDs on fishing nets.

For this project, Schmidt studied different types of renewable energy sources to determine which would be ideal for potential designs. Given that the nets are submerged in water but dried in the sun, Schmidt considered tidal and wave energy as options as well as solar charging.

“Turtle bycatch is a huge global issue and is impacting communities in Mexico, North Carolina, Hawaii and Indonesia, just to name a few,” Schmidt said. “In the future, we’re hoping to see our prototypes mass produced and used in fishing enterprises around the world.”

Schmidt said the research experience gave her valuable skills in developing a real-world product. She’s more confident in her abilities to take an idea through the product development process, from the original concept to a physical device.

Going into the SenSIP REU program, Schmidt wanted to determine whether engineering graduate school would be on her horizon.

“So far, the answer seems to be yes,” she said.

Changing the world one research experience at a time

These research centers in the Fulton Schools represent four of about 600 different REU sites across the U.S. For more than 30 years, the NSF has funded nearly 9,000 undergraduate students each year in the REU program. REU participants gain in-depth scientific research experience under the guidance of faculty members and research mentors to learn how to develop solutions.

Read more about all the REU programs hosted in the Fulton Schools this summer. 

Amanda Stoneman

Science Writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU research demonstrates silicon-based tandem photovoltaic modules can compete in solar market

Nature-Energy features ASU study that depicts acceptable intersection of improved solar technology costs vs. efficiency

July 30, 2018

New solar energy research from Arizona State University demonstrates that silicon-based tandem photovoltaic modules, which convert sunlight to electricity with higher efficiency than present modules, will become increasingly attractive in the U.S.

A paper that explores the costs vs. enhanced efficiency of this new solar technology appears in Nature Energy this week. The paper is authored by ASU Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Assistant Research Professor Zhengshan J. Yu, graduate student Joe V. Carpenter and Assistant Professor Zachary Holman. ASU Professor Zhengshan Yu addresses how current solar tell technologies are reaching the limits of efficiency. ASU Assistant Research Professor Zhengshan Yu addresses how current solar cell technologies are reaching the limits of efficiency. Photo courtesy of ASU Holman Lab Download Full Image

The Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative was launched in 2011 with a goal of making solar cost-competitive with conventional energy sources by 2020. The program attained its goal of $0.06 per kilowatt-hour three years early, and a new target of $0.03 per kilowatt-hour by 2030 has been set. Increasing the efficiency of photovoltaic modules is one route to reducing the cost of the solar electricity to this new target. If reached, the goal is expected to triple the amount of solar installed in the U.S. in 2030 compared to the business-as-usual scenario. 

But according to Holman, “the dominant existing technology — silicon — is more than 90 percent of the way to its theoretical efficiency limit,” precipitating a need to explore new technologies. More efficient technologies will undoubtedly be more expensive, however, which prompted the paper co-authors to ask, “Does a doubling of module efficiency warrant a doubling of cost?”

Tandem modules stack two, complementary photovoltaic materials — for instance, a perovskite solar cell atop a silicon solar cell — to best use the full spectrum of colors emitted by the sun and exceed the efficiency of either constituent solar cell on its own. The study was designed to determine how much more expensive high-efficiency tandem photovoltaic modules can be and still compete in the evolving solar marketplace. 

ASU Assistant Research Professor Zachary Holman reflects on the efficiency of new solar technologies vs. the costs.

ASU Assistant Professor Zachary Holman reflects on the efficiency of new solar technologies vs. the costs. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Results indicate that in the expected 2020 U.S. residential solar market, 32-percent-efficient anticipated tandem modules can cost more than three times that of projected 22-percent-efficient silicon modules and still produce electricity at the same cost. This premium, however, is a best-case scenario that assumes the energy yield, degradation rate, service life and financing terms of tandem modules are similar to those of silicon modules alone. The study also acknowledges that cost premium values will vary according to region. 

“Our previous study defines the technological landscape of tandems; this study paints the economic landscape for these future solar technologies that are only now being created in labs,” Yu said. “It tells researchers how much money they’re allowed to spend in realizing the efficiency enhancements expected from tandems.”

Holman’s research group is a leader in silicon-based tandem photovoltaic technologies, having held the efficiency world record in collaboration with Stanford University for a perovskite/silicon tandem solar cell until last month. As the team strives to reclaim the record while sticking to inexpensive materials and simple processes, it now knows that its innovations will likely find their way to a U.S. rooftop.

Terry Grant

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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Government policy, public perception and real-world economic consequence

July 12, 2018

ASU energy scholars confront the difficult challenges of transforming the climate narrative and enacting change through policy

Editor's note: This is the final installment in a three-part series on energy research at ASU. The first story examined the need for scalable solutions; the second story looked at the challenges facing solar power.

Earth is experiencing a Great Transition as its peoples slowly shift from fossil fuels to wind, plants, natural processes and our sun.

It’s not the first time people have changed where they get their energy sources, but as energy historian Chris JonesChris Jones is an assistant professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at ASU. said, what makes the Great Transition different is that this time we need to get rid of something, instead of just adding something. Climate change is the binding constraint. 

“If we had a lot of time, it wouldn’t be a big deal, truthfully,” policy expert Elisabeth Graffy said. But, with the window for making progress on climate change shrinking, it gets a lot more complicated.

Arizona State University is part of a new coalition of 13 leading research universities committed to tackling climate change. The group — called the University Climate Change Coalition — includes universities from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

In the U.S., climate change has become a divisive issue because of the hyperpolitical furor that drives our politics.

“We’re alone in that,” said Gary Dirks, who directs LightWorks, a network of people working together on a broad spectrum of energy issues at ASU. “The rest of the world just looks at us like we’re idiots, and it’s ending in the United States.

“The reason I can say that is because A) I’m a scientist, so these people that say ‘Well, I’m not a scientist, but …’ Well, OK, but I am a scientist. B) I was a senior executive at British Petroleum. I was there when these conversations were going on. I know exactly what the oil industry knew in the '90s, and we all knew that climate change was the issue. The American companies chose to take a stance that says, ‘We think government interference in our business is a more serious problem than climate, so we’re going to make sure government doesn’t interfere.’ Well, that era is now over. ... Climate is a very serious problem.”

What is not always thought about is the reality of getting from Point A to Point B, which involves the governing and policy dimensions Graffy studies. (As ASU chemist Ellen Stechel put it, “‘If I can make it work’ is not enough.”)

Elisabeth Graffy

Graffy is professor of practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. She also co-leads the policy theme for LightWorks. Graffy has spent most of her career in government, much of it at the federal level. Over the years she worked on a number of issues that all led back to energy. “Strategic management of the science-policy interface” is how she describes her field. 

No single agency makes energy policy for the federal government. 

“There wasn’t anyone with direct accountability to conceptualize this new world we were in,” Graffy said. “I knew all of it was changing pretty quickly and that universities hadn’t really caught up either, but that new ideas had to be developed, new approaches needed to be developed. We needed to deal with where things were moving fairly quickly.”

She thinks about the places where things intersect. Where can you get the most bang for your buck by making changes? You cannot change a complex system by designing it from the top down. You have to understand it as an organic entity. She finds the intersections between policy issues. 

“It requires a particular way of being able to see the big picture in the little pictures, and then being able to connect them periodically and not get super-worried about the fact you can’t connect them all,” she said. “I think it can easily be overwhelming. That’s why I wanted to be at a university. How to think about things that could be overwhelming in a way that makes them conceptually manageable and operationally tractable — that is the challenge for work in this space.”

Government officials, while often experts in their subject, rarely have the latitude to sit back and put their policies in grander contexts. While that’s possible at a university, there’s a downside to it. 

“Funding for research into energy policy and governance is almost nonexistent,” Graffy said. “Funding shows that the research is legitimate. You can build a base of people who can work on it. You can build partnerships with other faculty, and you can bring in students and postdocs and whatever and you can just do more work. The funding we’re talking about is not that much, and it’s not really clear where you find it. ... I won’t say it never happens, but it almost never happens. ... It’s very, very seldom we see a call for a $25 million proposal come out.”

The guy who owns the corner station

As research leads to energy policy changes, collateral damage will be unavoidable. What about those who make a living selling gasoline to drivers?

“Yeah, the guy who owns the gas station on the corner is toast,” Dirks said. “It’s just a question of in what way it’s going to happen. There are ways that he could survive. ... (He) won’t be like he is today, but some of them could very well survive — I hope they do — but it won’t be up to him.”

Once Clark Miller met with a federal-state partnership organization that works with the poorest counties along the Mississippi Delta — some of the poorest in the nation — about economic development. Natural gas, oil and coal activity in three-quarters of those counties will disappear over the next 50 years. 

“Did they want to talk to me about thinking strategically about how to get ahead of this problem?” Miller said. “No way. That was a political nonstarter for that organization. This is the conversation we’re trying to change.”

Miller directs the Center for Energy and Society in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU. The center is the result of a decade of his work. What the center does is put people back into the energy equation.

Some jobs and communities are not going to fare well in the Great Transition. Coal miners are only the tip of the iceberg. 

“We ought to be ahead of this problem,” Miller said. “We know it’s coming, that there are places and people whose jobs and livelihood, whose community well-being and economic lifeblood depends on fossil-fuel energy resources. We know exactly who these people are. We can map them and measure them, but no one has even begun to ask that question. People want to hide their head in the sand.”

ASU engineer Nathan Johnson points to one solution: a potential $40 billion market in microgrids by 2024. 

“The push or the demand for those technologies can’t be attained without sufficient human resource capability to do the work,” he said. “We have a series of training programs for workforce development.”

LightWorks started that work with funding from the Navy for veterans. Called the NEPTUNE project (for Naval Enterprise Partnership Teaming with Universities for National Excellence), it has trained about 100 veterans through boot camps in microgrids, cybersecurity and electrogrids, among other subjects. 

Nathan johnson

An assistant professor in the Polytechnic School of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Nathan Johnson researches and teaches sustainable and resilient energy systems. Photo by Krisanna Mowen/ASU 

“These folks walk into jobs where they have a four-year degree, and they’re making, you know, $80,000 to $130,000 a year,” Johnson said. “So they’re doing really well for themselves for a while. And then, they have a specialized skill set in the industry that has a significant amount of retirees right now, but then also given the complexities and increasing threats to the grid, they’re adding additional types of personnel. So not only are they losing their existing human workforce, but they’re adding job titles they don’t even have people to fill. And so then we provide tailored skill sets to these niche areas.”

There are plans to extend the program through a global hub-and-spoke model. 

The Great Transition is an opportunity to improve lives, Miller said. Literally tens of trillions of dollars will be spent to reinvent and decarbonize energy systems.

“If all we get out of that is an energy system that’s clean, I’ll be happy because we have a carbon-neutral energy system at the other end of that transition — but I will also be very sad because we will have spent all that money and only gotten an energy system that does what the current one does but it’s carbon-neutral,” he said. “I’d really love to see this also be an investment in significantly upgrading the human future. How do we use these investments to create a better future for humanity?”

Once upon a time

A lot of the language about climate change and the Great Transition uses the word “sacrifice.” Let’s put that in a sentence: 

“It’s a moral issue, and we may need to reduce our quality of life or make sacrifices in order to not destroy the world for future generations.”

Not everyone is going to leap with joy upon being told they need to go vegan, live in a microhouse, sell the SUV and bike to work.

Graffy sighs. 

“That’s not a narrative that makes people want to jump up and say, ‘Sure, let’s do that,’” she said.

And the narrative about the Great Transition matters a lot. 

“We’re storytelling animals. We love stories,” said Joni Adamson, a professor of environmental humanities in the Department of English. “Human thinking on climate, human thinking on energy, on energy transitions, whatever you want to call it, is centuries, actually thousands of years old. If you look back to the most ancient almanacs, people were thinking about the stars, humans and soil.”

If you ask people if they can remember a book that changed their life or that changed their thinking, almost everyone has one. It usually involved a character that had some kind of change, whether it’s a myth where they turned into a bird or had some kind of life transition.  

“Books literally give us the tools to imagine transition,” Adamson said. “That’s why we’re being invited to be at the table now with sustainability scientists and people who are thinking about energy transitions.”

In 2010 Dirks held a retreat for ASU humanists to talk about how they could bring their insights into the School of Sustainability.

“No one can quite figure out what we have to do with the environment and sustainability, but actually we’ve been really long and really deep for 30 years in environmental issues,” Adamson said. “If you think about Edward Abbey, he was writing back in the '60s. He was drawing who would become environmentalists to a cause.”

Data produced by scientists has proven climate change is real, but it hasn’t been put into an effective narrative. That’s what Adamson and other humanists are trying to do. 

“We’re trying to think about human behavior, motivations and desires because when it comes to the reasons why we need to have energy transitions, it’s because of human behavior, motivations and desires,” she said. “It’s also because we get locked into thinking that things have to be the way we think they have to be. We get locked into ideas, and we don’t know where those ideas came from. We don’t understand why those ideas might need to change in an energy transition, so that’s where humanists come in.”

The cautionary tale of Germany’s ‘Energiewende’

The narrative coming out of Germany, one of the first countries to make a concerted effort to go green, is more horror story than fairy tale. 

That’s normal, energy historian Jones said.

“Energy transitions have always been hugely chaotic,” he said. “There hasn’t been a rational energy transition without hiccups. ... How much attention do you pay to those hiccups versus the long-term arc of whether those were the best set of investments to make?”

The “Energiewende,” or “Energy Turnaround,” is a massive German project on the scale of the American New Deal or Soviet five-year plans. A complex set of interrelated laws and regulations aimed at turning energy use green, its goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, without nukes but with renewables.

And it’s unsuccessful, according to Christine Sturm, a veteran of German energy who recently earned a PhD in sustainability at ASU. She has worked on market deregulation, as an industry spokesperson, and in several executive positions at RWE, Europe’s largest energy provider.

Exploding energy costs, failed policy tools like German and European Union trading plans, and reeling utility companies, coupled with a failure to meet goals, are the dark side of green. The hurdles are significant and unforeseen. 

wind farm

The Cedar Creek 2 Wind Farm in Colorado is owned by BP Wind Energy and Sempra U.S. Gas & Power. As the Great Transition continues, utilities will need solutions to reliably deliver power via renewables. Photo courtesy of BP Images

Energy systems, as Sturm notes, are complex stews of technologies, institutions, markets, regulations and social systems. “Nations have little experience intervening in such socio-technical systems to steer them in desired new directions over specified periods,” she wrote in an essay published in Issues in Science and Technology last year.

The big challenge for the Energiewende is integrating wind and sun into existing energy systems. Despite efforts at converting excess electrical power to hydrogen, methane, heat or other storable commodities, storing the electricity necessary to solve the problem remains “technologically, economically and politically out of reach,” Sturm wrote.

The wind doesn’t blow every day, and the sun doesn’t shine every day, either. What happens on still, overcast days?

Collapse has been averted only through two mechanisms that run directly counter to the goals of the Energiewende.

Intermittency is balanced by running fossil power plants when conditions aren’t right for renewables. On sunny and windy days, Germany produces so much power it has to push the surplus on neighboring grids, disturbing their systems and creating additional costs. “These solutions are neither economically sustainable nor carbon-free,” Sturm wrote.

The solution doesn’t exist. Moving to a low-carbon energy system requires the ability to store power at scale: batteries. Sturm doesn’t share Elon Musk’s belief that the entire world can run cheaply on 2 billion of his Powerpack batteries. And buying your way out of a bind isn’t really solving the problem. 

“It suggests that energy transitions come at low costs,” Sturm said. “Unfortunately this is all but true. If a storage volume of 10 kWh costs, as Elon Musk indicates, $3,500, Germany could have leveled wind and solar intermittences generated in 2015 — when Germany covered about one third of its energy demand with renewables — by paying $3.15 trillion on top of the already high Energiewende costs. This theoretical figure is debatable, because it oversimplifies the complexity of large socio-technological systems.”

Power demand is never flat, there are alternatives to lithium ion batteries leveling out intermittencies, and consumption patterns can be adjusted to the patterns of energy generation, Sturm argued.

“But, even if one creatively combines these ideas and finally succeeds to half the storage demand, the burden remains simply too high,” she said.

Other countries can expect to experience the same problems Germany is experiencing, Sturm said. 

“Despite all achievements in the renewable energy realm, Germany’s steadily growing regulatory labyrinth has mostly failed to induce the desired outcomes, offering instead strong lessons about the unintended consequences of such interventions,” she said.

Policy expert Graffy isn’t too surprised. She’s not discouraged, either. 

“It’s not surprising that in the early experiments there are some things that work well and some things that don’t work well,” she said. “The challenge really is to look at those things and not really get disheartened by the fact that there are things that didn’t work out right to begin with, to keep our eyes on the ball, if you will. ... Learn as we go — the stuff is very, very dynamic.”

The Navajo Generating Station

Everything you have read in this series to this point is embodied in the power plant crouched on sandstone just east of Page: the rise of renewables, policy, people, market forces, microgrids — all of it.

When populations in the Southwest exploded during the 1950s and 1960s, there was a need for more power. Suggestions of damming the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon didn’t go over well. The solution was the Navajo Power Project.

A coal-fired power plant — the Navajo Generating Station — was built. Coal was mined by Navajo miners on Black Mesa, then shipped by rail to the plant, burnt, and the electricity transmitted along 800 miles of line. The whole project was completed in 1976. 

Payments to the Navajo Nation account for about a quarter of the tribe’s revenues (and 65 percent of the Hopi tribe’s revenues). Native American tribal members, mainly Navajo, make up 83 percent of plant employees and 93 percent of mine employees, resulting in about 850 direct tribal positions.

Navajo Generating Station is the biggest coal-fired plant west of the Mississippi. It is also among the first coal plants to be shuttered because of low natural gas prices.

The Salt River Project — the plant’s majority owner — decided to shutter the plant in December 2019. Utilities are mandated by law to use the least-cost resource. That’s not coal anymore. 

“(Coal is) expensive, it’s dirty — nobody’s going to do that,” Dirks said. “It’s an expensive fuel. If you want to burn something to generate power, burn natural gas. It’s easier to work with, it’s very clean, it’s cheaper, and that’s exactly what SRP decided with Navajo Generating Station: ‘Why should I burn coal when I can burn gas? And I can burn it closer to where I need the power anyway, because I can get gas in Phoenix. I don’t need to get my power from coal 400 miles to the north.’ And that’s true everywhere on the entire planet; virtually everybody is saying, ‘Well, that’s expensive fuel.’”

Last October, the Trump administration announced $30 million worth of U.S. Department of Commerce grants to help states and regions deal with the declining use of coal and plant closings.

One grant included almost $100,000 for ASU and Northern Arizona University to help the Navajo Nation transition from coal to renewables.

Kris Mayes is a professor of practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. She is also a former state corporation commissioner and co-author of the Arizona Renewable Energy Standard, which requires that by 2025 utilities must generate 15 percent of their energy portfolio from renewables.

“The shutting down of the Navajo Generating Station is an enormous impact to the Navajo Nation in terms of lost jobs and lost revenues,” Mayes said. “This is huge. ASU is committed to doing everything we can to assist the nation to come out of this in a better position.”

The two universities are working in three areas.

First, they are creating an auditable decision-making process. It’s a transparent, statistically based, methodologically sound tool that allows organizations to make decisions in sound statistics and economics, and then demonstrate the thinking behind their decision. That is being led by an ASU professor who has done the same thing for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Daniel Brooks is an associate professor emeritus in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

The process “will allow the Navajo Nation to arrive at sound options for bolstering their economy in the event the (plant) does close,” Mayes said. “What are the best and highest options for them to create jobs and to fill in the economic vacuum that will be created by (the plant) going down?”

There’s a lot of pressure on the Navajo Nation government to plot a successful path.

The second area is education and outreach around development of huge solar and wind projects. Right now, there is only one solar farm on Navajo Nation land. One hurdle to solar is overcoming perceptions it could interfere with grazing leases, an important part of the local economy. “They can actually go hand in glove,” Mayes said. 

This summer she will visit 110 chapter houses with NAU and Navajo Nation reps to talk about benefits and attributes. Chapter houses are a semi-autonomous hyper-local government. They’re similar to New England town halls. 

“It’s a big assignment, and there’s no way we’re going to get it done this summer,” Mayes said. “This is more like Round One. ... It’s going to be a long journey.”

Finally, Johnson will be working with Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (the Navajo utility) on grid modernization projects and possibly microgrids for areas that aren’t electrified. Johnson will use solar for chapters that don’t have electricity and will also do some workforce training in hopes that people who lose their jobs can be reemployed.

“Our job is to make sure we can come out of the other side of this in a better place,” Mayes said. “It’s a long-term effort, but ASU is committed to seeing it through.”

The same process could be applied to Appalachia.

“You quickly realize that a lot more coal plants are going to be shut down in the not-too-distant future,” she said. “This is just the first of many that will be shuttered. ... Even as the transition occurs, we have to help the communities that the transition impacts, like the Navajo Nation. We cannot just leave communities in the lurch who have for years been supporting low-cost energy for the rest of us.”  

Energy's Great Transition series

Part 1: The need for developing scalable solutions 

Part 2: Solar, rising demand and an energy grid in a box

Part 3: Government policy and the real-world economic effects on people

Top photo: The Navajo Generating Station near Lake Powell. Photo by Michael McNamara/Salt River Project

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Solar technology seeking a balance

From technology to policy, ASU faculty are on the front line of solar.
July 10, 2018

The evolution of solar energy technology is happening at ASU, as researchers look to find affordable, reliable solutions

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on energy research at ASU. The first story examined the need for scalable solutionsthe finale looks at policy and the real-world economic effects on people.

Arizona. Where you don’t have to shovel sunshine, as the old tourism ads chortled. At Arizona State University, students and alumni are Sun Devils. The sun is in the university logo. Solar panels cover almost every structure. 

It’s natural then that solar panels take the biggest slice of ASU’s energy research pie. Financial estimates for the next decade point to more than $1 trillion invested in renewable energy globally.

Down in southeast Tempe lies the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) lab. In the clean rooms, there’s an eerie yellow glow because the techs work with materials sensitive to certain types of light. It’s kept at a specific temperature and humidity, and everyone wears full bunny suits.

It’s the perfect environment to work in if you have allergies. To a layman’s eye, the process looks a lot like screen printing T-shirts, but with silver paste instead of ink. The lab looks at different ways of engineering panels, with different materials.

“We have unique research facilities,” said Christiana Honsberg, a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy EngineeringPart of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. and lab director. “Not only is QESST the largest (university) solar research facility in the United States, it is the only place where you can make a full-size, commercial solar cell. Over the past year, solar companies have been sending their researchers to work with our faculty in our facilities. We are literally teaching the industry how to advance solar technologies.”

Photovoltaics is an interesting example of how the traditional research model doesn’t work well. The U.S. university model tends to be one person, one lab. That makes international competition hard. It hinders solving big-world problems. The QESST labs bring many disciplines together: materials, devices, systems and physics.  

The house of the rising sun

Right now, solar panels are at a development level akin to the Ford Model T, but Honsberg said you can look at it a couple of different ways. The Model T showed that the technology worked, it could be mass-produced, and it could be affordable. It showed that Ford’s invention had enormous potential. 

“Solar today has shown the potential to act as a major energy source, with still enormous room for technological improvement,” Honsberg said. 

A key measure of solar cell performance is efficiency. The theoretical limit of efficiency is around 86 percent. Present commercial solar panels are at around 20 percent. There’s a long way to go. (Honsberg co-invented the Very High Efficiency Solar Cell. It topped out at 42.8 percent.)

“The technology that’s used today in commercial solar cells is fairly similar in most cases to the technology that was developed 20 years ago,” she said. “We’re just starting to see the innovation now where we’re seeing higher efficiency, new types of technology.” 

qesst lab

Research team member Kate Fisher applies a silver-based paste on a screen before it's printed on a silicon wafer at the Solar Power Laboratory at ASU's Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The first modern solar cell from 1954 is still around. (And doing well, by all accounts.) Lifetime in the field is usually determined by mechanical failures — something falls on it and it breaks. “Guarantees are on the order of 25 years,” Honsberg said. “If there’s no mechanical breakage, the 25 years is probably pretty conservative.”

The goal right now is to improve that to 30 years and beyond, because that would reduce the net cost of electricity to the consumer.

There are a lot of myths about solar (some of them shared by energy researchers in other areas). 

Honsberg practically has a sideline in trying to determine the origin of the saying “Solar pays for itself, just not in your lifetime.”

“That was never actually true,” she said. “If you look at the published papers, that was never a true statement.”

The energy payback time in solar varies with sunlight. If you put it in the dark, it never generates electricity. If it’s sunny out, the energy payback time is less than a year. 

It’s also false that more electricity goes into making a cell than it produces. One of the important things QESST does is focus on education and outreach. 

“The technology has been developing so rapidly,” Honsberg said. “The price is falling very, very quickly. A lot of attitudes people have formed about solar are out of date. Even if you look at newspaper articles and they’re quoting prices, if it’s more than one or two years, the numbers are extremely out of date. 

“Trying to do a lot of public outreach in order to give people an idea of the potential of the technology is very important because it’s going to be such an important technology moving forward. For California, for example, photovoltaics generate nearly 20 percent of the electricity. In the U.S., for multiple corridors, renewable energy — in terms of electricity production — was over 90 percent of the newly installed electricity. So getting people and students interested in the field is extremely important.”

The lab’s major immediate focus is to develop technologies to meet what is called the Terawatt Challenge, the challenge in developing an abundant, sustainable energy source.

Last year, ASU earned six prestigious Department of Energy SunShot Awards, totaling $4.3 million, ranking it first among recipients in the Photovoltaics Research category for 2017. The 2017 awards mark the second year in a row that ASU faculty won more SunShot Awards than any other academic institution in the country.  

Techs down in the labs have a saying: “The evolutionary beats the revolutionary.”

The transistor was invented by mapping out a path. In the late 1940s three physicists said, “We’re going to innovate here, here and here.” That’s the master plan at QESST. 

“It’s similar to what we need in solar,” Honsberg said. “At the scale of these industries, just having a major step change in technology is extremely disruptive. You need to have a plan for how are you going to impact the short term, what technologies do you need for the long term? So, it’s less that we’re looking 20 years down the road, but part of that plan in order to get to a really revolutionary result 20 years from now is to have a path of innovation with impact in the shorter term.”

Thinking at QESST is done a bit differently in all realms. Their funding mentality follows that pattern. Instead of asking, “What can I get funding for,” the question tends to be “What’s the target and how can we fund it?”

To date, the lab’s most significant accomplishment has been showing that commercial solar cells still have plenty of room for efficiency improvement. 

One in 50 new jobs is solar-related, according to QESST. Solar employs twice the people coal mining does. More than half of new jobs in electricity are in solar. The lab works with all 15 Arizona utilities, up with policy makers and down in the weeds with system development and maintenance crews.

“We are at the edge of being able to harness huge amounts of energy. What will society do with that energy source?” Honsberg said. “We have an opportunity to demonstrate that solar is beneficial to society. 

“It’s not about having the next paper published in Nature. We need to define our desired outcome differently — include people’s attitudes. The ‘we know better, believe us, this is the right thing to do' attitude focuses on the cool technology rather than the outcome. We need to do better and ensure that technology is more integrated with society as a whole.”

Linemen and the duck curve

Electricity has been used for homes and industry since 1882, but cities and everything else have gotten much, much bigger. We’re also drowning in electronics. 

Thirty years ago, airports did not have banks of charging outlets at every gate. Homes had TVs and toasters, but not Roombas or the latest shiny goods from Silicon Valley. Quite simply, people are using more power than ever before. 

And the electric car explosion is looming on the horizon. 

“Everybody always takes it for granted it will always be there,” said Vijay Vittal, Ira A. Fulton Chair Professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. “Then there is this added responsibility from the electric utility to provide it reliably and economically. That’s a big issue. You cannot have a gold-plated system and pay enormous amounts of money for it.”

power lines

One of the obstacles to the transition away from traditional energy sources is that humans are using more power than ever before. Photo courtesy of United States Geological Survey

Vittal, an expert on electric power, power system dynamics and controls, is the director of the Power Systems Engineering Research Center (PSERC). Headquartered at ASU, the center is a program of industry and university cooperation. There are 11 other universities and 30 member companies, mostly utilities and system operators.

Gary Dirks, the director of ASU’s LightWorks, calls Vittal’s team “arguably the best transmission group in the country — perhaps even in the world.” They deal with the delivery of energy from the generation side until close to the customer — think big overhead power lines. (Other ASU faculty work at the level of power lines you see in neighborhoods.) They work on transmission design, analysis tools, hardware, algorithms and modeling, and cybersecurity. 

“There are people in our group who also deal with the customer-side issue where it goes from the transmission system through the distribution system to the customer,” Vittal said. 

They also work on system automation, operation and planning. Operating an electrical system is enormously complicated because electricity isn’t stored. It’s generated as and when needed. Generation to load has to be matched on the fly, in real time.

“We deal with all aspects of this, in terms of planning, design and economics,” Vittal said. “Right now the primary concern is the uncertainty associated with renewable resources. That’s been a big focus of our research.”

Power grids are delicate systems. The vast majority of Americans flip a switch and have no expectation of anything happening besides the lights or TV coming on. Thomas Edison brought residential electricity to parts of Manhattan in 1882, and the last parts of the country to be wired were rural areas in the late 1930s. But west Phoenix experienced brownouts as recently as 10 years ago. 

They are also subject to physical issues. Look at Puerto Rico. Their entire grid was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Hurricane Katrina took out huge chunks of the grid in Louisiana and Mississippi. The transmission grid east of the Rockies is one interconnected system. So is the grid west of the Rockies from British Columbia down to Baja California.

“This is one interconnected system, so you have to operate it as such,” Vittal said. “Just the size, the scale, the complexities involved require very detailed modeling and analysis. Much of it eventually has to be handled in real time.”

How do you operate the grid reliably with unreliable sources like wind and sunshine? There are 13 faculty members working on this problem. Most of PSERC’s research looks at how to integrate renewables into the grid. It’s progressing well, Vittal said. 

“There are various parts we deal with,” he said. “First of all, you have to model these devices appropriately. That’s one aspect of it, so you can accurately do analysis. Then there are people who look at how do you predict wind and solar? Because both long-term and short-term is required.”

The National Weather Service can give a fairly good forecast 24 to 36 hours ahead of time. Not much work has been done on five- or 10-minute forecasting. 

“That’s one of the areas the group at ASU is working on on another project,” Vittal said. “We are looking both at currently measured outputs with some historical data and coming up with some statistical techniques to kind of model both the distribution and the point forecast for both wind and solar. So that’s very critical because … the operator is required to handle things in a five-minute and ten-minute horizon.”

That would help the duck curve become less duckierWhen California mandated solar on all new homes a few months ago, experts said it’s going to make the duck curve problem even more pronounced.. If you plot out residential energy use, it’s flat during the day, like the belly of a duck, when most people are at work. In the evening, the sun goes down, people come home, and the need for energy ramps up steeply. To manage that, you need storage or the ability to maneuver generation very fast. 

Gerald Heydt believes there has to be an optimal mix of conventional energy and renewables.

Heydt recently retired as Regents’ Professor of advanced technology. He is an expert in power engineering; at ASU that’s split between electric, some nuclear and some coal.

Heydt is opposed to dropping everything conventional in favor of renewables. 

“The cost would go sky-high,” he said. “There’s a negative side. The utilities would be happy to dump everything and switch to solar if it were so wonderful and so cheap, but it’s not. ... A lot of the students we have come in bright-eyed and you start to explain the limitations on all this stuff, and then they get less enthusiastic about it.”

The unreliability of sun and wind is a problem. There’s little wind in Arizona. Even if there were, it’s not a power source you want to run a hospital on. 

“We’re cautiously approaching solar and wind,” Heydt said. “There are good engineers who know what the balance should be right now. ... You have to have some kind of reliable generation ready to go.” 

Power engineers have a phrase called “installed capacity.” It’s the full-load output of a plant.

“Solar does not mean we’re going to reduce the installed capacity for, say, coal and natural gas,” Heydt said. “It means you’re going to use less coal and natural gas. That’s for sure. Every watt hour of solar you’re using means you’re not using coal or natural gas. And that’s a good thing. But you still need a generator. There’s going to be a time when the wind isn’t there. And then there’s storage.”

Vittal believes good storage will eventually be solved. 

Grid in a box

While Heydt, Vittal and others work on big overhead power lines, Nathan Johnson works at the level of neighborhood power lines. 

He specializes in working where there are no power lines at all. 

For the past 15 years, he has set up solutions in countries like South Africa, China, Mali, Honduras, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and Thailand. Johnson has put power grids in 12 countries (four since he has been at ASU). 

An assistant professor in the Polytechnic School of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Johnson researches and teaches sustainable and resilient energy systems.

He invented the grid in a box. It’s a standardized shipping container holding solar panels and a diesel generator. It can be custom-designed in three weeks. 

“It takes 30 minutes to set up and you’re rolling,” Johnson said.

The box has been used primarily for humanitarian disaster-response operations around the world, but it hasn’t yet been used in difficult-to-reach places in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Afghanistan. Bringing a 40-foot container with all its contents via helicopter to remote villages doesn’t make sense. (Johnson’s answer to a situation like that would be to donkey in a smaller solution in parts.)

“We use a lot of pictures and a lot of diagrams in order to make things as simple as possible from an IKEA-style setup,” he said. 

Altering operations or maintenance is more complicated, but anyone can get it up and running. 

Johnson leads the Laboratory for Energy and Power Solutions. It’s a research and development team of 20 students, four staff and himself translating energy innovations from concept to construction. 

“We do basic science or applied research, physical prototyping, and then testing in our 1-acre grid modernization and microgrid test bed outside,” he said. 

They work in four primary areas: off-grid solutions, grid modernization, critical infrastructure and resiliencyprotecting grids against natural disasters and attacks, and workforce development. 

About 1.2 billion people around the world don’t have access to any power at all. Fly over Africa from north to south at night and, south of the Sahara, there are almost no lights besides brush fires. 

How do you bring power there?

“So it’s interesting because the types of solutions that we would provide today for off-grid populations is not unlike how off-grid populations were 100 years ago,” Johnson said. “In essence, it’s a smaller version of the electric grid, a single, isolatable circuit that includes generation and loads. Now, more principally in the last 20 years, is that given the declining cost of solar and storage, now we can add solar and storage to offset the time of operation that a diesel generator would run and the cost of that diesel.”

How bad could the cost of diesel be? It’s around $3.50 right now. In a remote location in a developing nation, it could be $10 to $50 a gallon. If you’re in the military, the estimated cost is $400 per gallon at a forward operating base. That means the price for power is going to be $1-$2 per kilowatt hour. That’s throat-choking to anyone in a grid-connected community. Imagine a summer electric bill of $300 suddenly becoming $1,500 per month. 

More and more diesel generator sets are becoming hybridized with solar and storage. You use less diesel and maintenance goes down for communities that don’t have the technical know-how or money to do the maintenance. You would have solar-only homes with one panel and one battery; it would charge a cellphone, run a television, a radio and a few things like that, but no more. 

“There’s this really good sweet spot of existing solutions in that 30-cent to $1 per kilowatt hour which can provide basic needs, but can also come at a price point where they could stimulate local economic development,” Johnson said. 

Stimulating local economic development is part of a solution ASU is helping to provide in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. More than 1.5 million people are estimated to live in the camps. The United States Agency for International Development gave an ASU teamThe Holistic Water Solutions Initiative led by Arizona State University is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID.) The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of Arizona State University and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government. almost $2 million to develop an affordable and portable clean water solution. 

One of Johnson’s microgrids is currently deployed in Lebanon. It powers water purification for about 550 people. Another system will be deployed in August. The American government plans to eventually expand the solution in 18 camps in Jordan and Lebanon, benefiting more than 36,000 people.

Making the project successful didn’t simply involve firing up the microgrid and walking away, Johnson said. 

Of the endless reports on the situation, none mentioned the needs of local Lebanese. 

After 30 years of getting people pushed into your country, watching resources dwindle while international entities put billions of dollars into your country (none of which goes to your people), all while being displaced so that the foreign contractors can live in your houses and work in your buildings, “that kind of creates a rub,” Johnson said. 

“A lot of those (reports) missed the challenges of the local citizens and the local economy because they’re taking in tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, and they’re displacing the existing, limited natural resources for the existing population,” he said. 

“We switched the focus to benefit to all of those that are affected, whether it be displaced peoples being kicked out of their country or running away from things, or the folks that are taking care of the individuals coming in,” he said. 

It’s not only a technological solution. It meshes with local culture and water laws, and it stimulates local economic development by being set up with a local entrepreneur who can technically manage the work. 

Johnson is about to do a site assessment for a similar project funded by the U.S. Navy in northern Uganda for Sudanese refugees. 

Top photo: A view of solar panels on the roof of the Fulton Center parking structure on the Tempe campus, with "A" Mountain in the background. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Energy's Great Transition series

Part 1: The need for developing scalable solutions 

Part 2: Solar, rising demand and an energy grid in a box

Part 3: Government policy and the real-world economic effects on people 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


image title

ASU on the forefront of a Great Transition

Transition from fossil fuels to renewables is all about scale, say ASU experts.
July 6, 2018

Researchers across the university are invested in developing scalable, renewable energy solutions for the 'wicked problem' of fossil fuel consumption

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.


Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on energy research at ASU. The second story examines at the challenges facing solar power; the finale looks at policy and the real-world economic effects on people.

People don’t like the dark. 

The first order of business in the Bible — the very first three verses — is getting rid of the dark by bringing in the light. Human ancestors made fires in South Africa one and a half million years ago. “My Sun” was the proper way to address Mesopotamian royalty. “Love is not consolation,” Nietzsche said. “It is light.”

When the sun sets, we dispel the dark with energy drawn from dead animals; “burning dinosaur bones,” Johnny Cash put it. 

That’s changing. There is a Great Transition underway, a colossal shift from fossil fuels to wind, plants, natural processes and our sun. It’s born from technological innovation and necessity. If humanity continues to dispel the dark entirely with carbon fuels, we will eventually wipe ourselves out.

Renewable energy sources are no longer the sole province of Northern California hippies and hard-core Alaskan survivalists.

Are we skipping blithely toward a clean-air future, with solar panels on every roof and an electric car in every garage? Not at all. Experts agree your energy future will involve a mix of sources. 

It will also involve solving a massive problem that is composed of thousands of problems itself. 

Elisabeth Graffy

“It’s all kinds of complicated,” said Arizona State University energy policy wonk Elisabeth Graffy.

“Energy is related to everything. There are energy systems themselves, which tends often to be thought of as an engineering issue. … It’s a classic wicked problemA wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is extremely difficult or impossible to solve., right? It touches all kinds of other issues, each of which is its own big issue. Then you have to figure out how they relate. 

ASU is tackling energy research with more than a hundred experts working on every aspect imaginable (and some quite surprising): from bizarre alternative fuels to humanities, from solar cells to society, from power transmission to policy. 

“It’s almost too much,” said Betsy Cantwell, CEO of Arizona State University Research Enterprise, the university’s applied research arm. Energy research is so huge at ASU that many of the people working in it don’t know the others. There’s no central hub for it. There isn’t a center or an institute, no umbrella over it all.  

Instead, there is LightWorks, a network of like-minded people working together on a broad spectrum of related issues. It is directed by Gary Dirks, a blunt former tai-pan who grew British Petroleum China from an operation with fewer than 30 employees and no revenue to more than 1,300 employees and revenues of about $4 billion. Dirks earned a doctorate in chemistry from ASU in 1980. He is highly decorated by foreign governments, including an honorary Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George from the United Kingdom. 

Dirks is something of a maestro of energy research, assembling and attracting a unique band of brothers. In addition to the expected engineers, Dirks has brought English professors, historians and sociologists into the mix. 

This is no ordinary nail, and it will require a very special hammer. Twenty years from now the energy system is going to be vastly different than it is today. 

“The question is: In what way?” Dirks said. “In other words, there’s going to be multiple pathways into the future, and the question then becomes, ‘How do we influence which one we get?’ That then draws in a much broader range of people thinking about the energy system and the energy transition as a complex system. There we have people from English, we have many people from the social sciences, we’ve got engineers, and they’re all kind of engaged in asking really some very good questions about the future, the energy system, and how do you build an energy system that serves us instead of us being bolted into an energy system that seems to have a life of its own.”

That unusual take on the topic is luring top experts to ASU.

Graffy has spent most of her career in government, most of it at the federal level. She studies public policy development. Issues about energy, layered with climate change, were starting to take on a life of their own. She saw it all changing quickly, and new approaches weren’t being developed.

“I looked around at which universities were likely to be taking up these issues in the way I wanted to work on them,” Graffy said. “There weren’t many options. This really was cutting-edge. Terms we use now like ‘energy transition’ and ‘energy and society,’ which are pretty common at ASU, didn’t exist. Six years ago, no one had words for this stuff.

“At ASU I think we are the only university that has all of those pieces that we can bring into the same conversation,” she said. “Some of the ideas have been floating around for a while, but talking about them in a really serious way is still relatively new.”

Of all the things we want an energy system to do, how do we make choices and strike a balance? 

“That’s the energy story,” Dirks said. “All the rest of it is just detail. We are working on the whole thing.”

Graffy has now been at ASU for six years. 

“We are poised to do some groundbreaking work in that space,” she said. 

gary dirks

Gary Dirks is the director of LightWorks, part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

Money, power, influence and reality

Energy systems are, and have been, the largest aggregators of power and wealth in the world. Twelve of the top 20 global Fortune 500 companies are energy companies.

Legacy energy is huge, in every way. It’s never going to say, “Oh, renewables have beaten us, and we’re just going to shut down the refineries, dock the ships, slink away and do something else.”

But renewable energy sources are steadily creeping up. They provided 18.4 percent of domestic electrical generation for the first two months of 2018. Solar grew 47.5 percent over January 2017, wind by 18.1 percent, biomass by 2.4 percent, and geothermal by 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Worldwide, it’s not a huge chunk. About 1 to 2 percent of global electricity and energy consumption comes from solar energy at the moment. 

The New York Times reports that onshore wind-farm technician is the fastest-growing job in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“The thing that I want to keep getting across is that this is a global scale, and it’s bigger than any government,” Dirks said. “It’s bigger than any collection of governments; it’s just going to run over local politics. It’s just a question of how and when. ... The energy system is changing, and there is absolutely nothing anybody can do to stop that. ... My point is, the president of the United States, Congress, the Chinese government, it doesn’t matter who they are, you’re not going to stop this going on because it’s just very fundamental.”

Clark Miller directs the Center for Energy and Society in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. He studies the societal implications of large-scale energy transitions.

“If you start to think about decentralizing that system, you’re fundamentally changing how we distribute wealth in society,” Miller said. 

Global security will also undergo a seismic shift. It has revolved around oil since before World War I.  

“If we switch to a different kind of energy system, our security problems are different,” Miller said. “I doubt they go away, but they no longer entail defending Saudi Arabia, for example.”

Legacy energy is fighting like a wounded animal, because it’s beginning to die by a thousand cuts. 

“There are groups here in Arizona that some of them are kind of being recalcitrant,” Dirks said. “OK, good luck, that will last for five years, 10 years if you’re lucky. And this train is going to run over you, too, so you might want to figure out how to minimize the damage when the train comes through.”

Legacy companies don’t have one voice or perspective on what’s happening, but it’s clear there’s a lot of debate within them. 

“If I’m APS, SRP, TEP (Tucson Electric Power), in the next 24 to 36 months, if I’m a serious thinker inside one of those organizations about the long-term — even the medium-term — future of the business, I have got to be figuring out how I’m going to get ahead of my customers on renewable energy,” Miller said. 

The real driver of recent policy moves by APS and SRP wasn’t households. It was big-box retailers. They were buying solar energy like mad. Power companies acted very quickly to change the financial incentives for those folks. It’s a big part of their business, and they make a lot of money from them. 

“If they try to push too hard to stop people from doing this, they’re going to start seeing companies developing solutions to sell to individual customers enough batteries and solar panels to basically take a house entirely off the utility grid,” Miller said. “There’s enough lingering irritation at utility companies generally that I think there’s a lot of people who would look at that and begin to ask, ‘Is this something I want to do?’”

When President Donald Trump announced last year that the United States would exit the Paris climate deal, many corporations said they would cut emissions on their own. That is speeding up. Last year in the United States, 19 large corporations announced deals with energy providers to build 2.78 gigawatts’ worth of wind and solar generating capacity, equal to one-sixth of all of the renewable capacity added nationwide in 2017, reported the New York Times. 

Utilities have their backs to the wall. How much time do they have to adapt or be run over?

“It’s not a big problem five years from now, but given trends in the price of renewable energy and the prices of batteries, I don’t see how it’s not a serious problem for them 15 years from now, which means they have to get ahead of it,” Miller said. “They have to figure out how to continue for them to be the energy provider of the future.”


A night view of BP's Shah Deniz Platform in the Caspian Sea, off the coast of Azerbaijan. Photo courtesy of BP Images

How the Great Transition stacks up historically

How long did switches between energy sources take to happen? What can the past tell us about the present? 

Chris Jones, an associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at ASU, is an energy historian who studies transitions, among other related topics.

“Several decades is the short answer,” Jones said. “Part of the question becomes when and where do you count it as being an energy transition? In the past, some of them have occurred quite quickly in localized areas, and then taken very long to reach other places.”

The first real use of coal was in 1820, Jones said. By 1885 coal was 50 percent of the energy supply. That’s 65 years.  

Oil was first discovered in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in 1859. In its first four decades, it was used for illumination, replacing whale oil. The internal combustion engine on a car came along in 1885. The Model T Ford followed in 1913. 

“You’re looking at 55 years before a major transport sector starts to take off for oil to be used in much larger quantities,” Jones said.

With coal and oil, places that were close to pipelines and waterways adopted the new fuels swiftly. Rural or distant areas had to wait quite a bit longer. It took 50 years after the first homes had electricity before half the homes in the U.S. had electricity. (Fun fact: The world’s oldest lightbulb — the Centennial Light, in a fire station in Livermore, California — has been burning for 117 years. Guinness has verified it.) 

The history of renewables isn’t all that different if you think about patterns of adoption, Jones said.

“One of the big things my historical research showed was that the adoptions of coal, oil and electricity were absolutely longer, murkier and less obvious than we think in retrospect,” he said. “Right now there’s this assumption that of course coal, oil and electricity were great and people rushed out to adopt them … then they compare that to renewables and they say, ‘Why is this happening so slowly? They must be inferior.’ 

“That’s a very bogus argument because if you look at them in their time, coal, oil and electricity all seemed some combination of unfamiliar, inconvenient and expensive.”

Almost all historical energy transitions have been what some historians call energy accretions. They are additions. We didn’t transition much away from anything; we just added more layers. However, in this epoch, it’s a different dynamic. People aren’t thinking of completely shutting off electricity in their homes when they install solar panels. They’re doing it to shave some money off their power bill. But this transition is unique because of the need to get rid of an energy source.  

Although putting solar on your house may reduce your bill and make you feel warm and gooey inside, it’s not even a drop in the bucket. Residential energy use in 2017 accounted for only 6.2 percent of overall energy consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Remember, the adoption of oil took around 55 years. It required mass-produced automobiles to hoist oil to where it is today. 

“Without electric cars, solar panels do nothing to affect the oil market,” Jones said. “It would take the electric car to have renewable energy significantly affect oil.”

The electric car is here, but not everywhere. Yet.

Right now, Teslas are the top status symbol in Los Angeles. But Elon Musk is working on the cheaper Model 3. Every other auto manufacturer has some type of electric or partly electric vehicle in the works. If you’re looking for signs of the democratization of electric cars, there are Tesla charging stations behind the Carl’s Jr. in Quartzsite, Arizona.

“Part of when fuels compete and push something off is whether there are direct replacements for the same service that’s provided,” Jones said. “Right now, oil is different than coal and natural gas in that so much of it is the transport sector.”

Energy transitions are about volume at scale. You read the energy news and there are always new breakthroughs in this or that. They’re interesting, but nothing’s relevant until you can do it in the billions of dollars at a cost people can afford. 

It’s not easy being green (but it’s possible)

The late Milton Sommerfeld, founder and co-director of ASU’s algae labs (the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation), leaned back in his chair two years ago, having just spun his vision of the future to life. 

It was a future where you filled your gas tank with algal fuel, fed algae to livestock, fertilized crops, lawns and flowerbeds with algae, purified wastewater with it, and ate it. Outside every small town is an algae pond, filling that town’s needs. 

“OK,” a visitor said. “How come I’m not running my car on algae right now?”

“What’d you pay for gas this week?”

“About $2.”

That’s why,” said the Wizard of Ooze.

Sommerfeld grew up on a farm in Texas. His father made him clean the algae out of the cattle trough. Every week, he cleaned it out. Every week, it came back.

“I kept wondering why it grew so fast,” he said in a 2016 interview. “That was how I first related to the algae.”

One of the nation’s top experts on algae, Sommerfeld spent almost 50 years cracking dozens of uses for the plant. There are about 75,000 types of algae, ranging from microscopic specimens to kelp a hundred feet long and as big around as a baseball bat. It can look like lime Kool-Aid, black or brown crude oil, or hearty burgundy.

On a 4-acre site directly across the street from the algae lab on ASU’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, Sommerfeld’s successors are working on bringing algae cultivation to a production scale. In the baking sun sit racks of panels with algae bubbling in them and long test beds lined with white plastic where mill paddles churn scarab-green and wine-dark water. Six years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy invested $15 million to find out how to grow algae outdoors in a production setting.

There are places with more faculty working on algae, but from a U.S. academic standpoint, there is no facility bigger or with more capability. 

“With the combination of our laboratory and outdoor facilities, no one can match us,” said John McGowen, director of operations and program management. “Generally speaking, we are the largest academically based test bed in the world.”

Researchers prospect interesting algae in the environment. (Swimming pools, mud puddles — it grows everywhere.) They look at what the algae is doing and how it positively or negatively affects the environment, searching for interesting applications in ecosystems such as wastewater purification. While the facility’s work ranges broadly over food, dyes, pharmaceuticals and high-value compounds, the bulk of the lab has been funded from an energy standpoint: 75 to 80 percent of the funding comes from the Department of Energy. 

To get to the point, algae as a fuel is not happening, at least not from a large-scale standpoint. 

The issue is not “Can you make oil out of algae?” It’s “Can you make hundreds of millions of barrels at not more than twice the cost of conventional oil?”

“It’s technologically feasible, but the scales are mind-boggling when you think about it,” McGowen said. “As Gary Dirks likes to say, the energy system in the U.S. is 100 years old and it’s a very defensive beast. The infrastructure there is solid, and most of the stuff you do isn’t going to disrupt that because you’re not even on a similar scale.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t commercial potential for algae and algae technology. 

“It’s more on an agriculture side from a commercial standpoint,” McGowen said. “That’s actually a good thing because the quality of the oil isn’t that great. There’s a whole range of applications, many of which have been technologically proven. Now it’s just a question of the economics and finding the right scales.”

kevin redding

Professor Kevin Redding's work focuses on using natural resources for alternative sources of energy. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Fuel for a far distant future, part 1

Fossil fuels are finite. The world uses 11 billion tons of oil annually. Known oil deposits are projected to last until 2052, according to the CIA World Factbook. If the world steps up gas production and coal mining to fill the oil gap, known sources of those fuels are projected to run out in 2088. New reserves will be found, but those being discovered are far smaller than past deposits. 

There are other potential fuels that, like algae, are viable but not scalable or economically sensible — for now. 

Kevin Redding is a biochemist who leads the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis at ASU. In his lab they work on biological, light-driven energy extraction. Researchers are trying to answer two questions: How does the fundamental science work, and how can it be applied?

“I’m trying to redirect the natural photosynthesis pathway to be useful to us,” Redding said.

Think of photosynthesis as an assembly line. You start at one end, oxidize water, and it releases oxygen. Electrons come down through the pathway and at the very end take carbon dioxide out of the air, fixing it into organic molecules like sugar and protein. Redding has redirected those electrons to make hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel. 

Yes, there are buses that run on hydrogen, but that hydrogen was made from natural gas, a fossil fuel. With Redding’s biofuel, you’d be running cars on hydrogen that came from water. 

“That’s the whole idea behind making biofuels from CO2 in the air, which is probably a better idea, because our whole infrastructure is set to deal with liquid fuels,” Redding said. “If we’re dealing with hydrocarbons right now, why not stick with that? You take CO2 from the air, you make a fuel you can put in your tank, you burn it, you make CO2 again, but since that carbon came from CO2 in the air anyway, there’s no net production.”

Hydrogen is used in making gasoline and diesel fuel, food products, chemicals, semiconductors, metals and more. It’s more valuable as a commodity. Before you’d ever use it as a fuel you’d have to flood the commodity market. 

“Fuels are very high volume, low margin,” Redding said. “It’s the lowest-value thing you can make. Right now hydrogen is much more valuable as a commodity than a fuel. ... Economically it doesn’t make sense.”

The best estimate he has heard is that biofuels could get to be only 40 or 50 percent more expensive than petroleum. 

“Who’s going to pay $2 more for a gallon, even if you had the choice?” he said. “We could do it. We could do it right now. But as long as there’s an alternative, no one is going to do it.”

Redding is working on a proof of concept, but small-scale experiments in a lab are a different ballgame than a facility where the scale has increased exponentially. Cooking breakfast for yourself is easy. Cooking breakfast for an army is a whole different deal.

“Until we try things at that level, I don’t know,” Redding said.

Fuel for a far distant future, part 2

Ellen Stechel may be one of the few scientists who loves CO2. A chemist in the School of Molecular Sciences, Stechel is also deputy director of LightWorks. She studies using CO2 to make products by chemical means (not biology or photosynthesis).

“Carbon is very versatile,” she said. You can make anything with it that you can make from petroleum today, like plastic bowls. It forms more compounds than any other element in the periodic table (besides hydrogen). Carbon composites can subsitute for steel or cement (and it will be much lighter and stronger). 

She worked with a team at Sandia National Laboratories on a “Sunshine to Petrol” project. (She also managed the Fuels and Energy Transitions Department at Sandia.)

“Once we split CO2 or split water — or both of them — then we have a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which is called syngas,” Stechel said. “We can use that as our building blocks for making pretty much any kind of petroleum alternative you would like. We’re focused on diesel and aviation fuel, but it could be other things.”

But like any other alternative fuel, the cost makes it hard to implement. 

Stechel wants to take the bad stuff out of the air and turn it into buildings and bridges. 

“I’d personally like to turn it into value before seeing it as burying waste,” she said. “The challenge is getting over the cost humps.”

Energy's Great Transition series

Part 1: The need for developing scalable solutions 

Part 2: Solar, rising demand and an energy grid in a box

Part 3: Government policy and the real-world economic effects on people

Top photo: Replacing the enormous infrastructure of current energy sources is one of the main hurdles for the Great Transition to renewable energy. Above, the drilling ship Polar Pioneer arrives in Seattle. Photo by Ron Wurzer/Courtesy of Shell

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now