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Helping smart cities use big data, connected technology for good

New ASU center will help cities and regions use data analytics and emerging technologies to advance their economic, social, cultural and overall health

April 3, 2018

How should urban planners and policy-makers manage autonomous vehicles? How can innovators and entrepreneurs develop new technologies that respond to the needs of communities and produce better health outcomes? How can private and public data protect and empower vulnerable populations?

These are some of the questions Arizona State University's new Center for Smart Cities and Regions will address, as it works to improve the ability of communities to leverage the Internet of Things and other new technologies to advance their economic, social, cultural and overall health. Center Co-Directors pose with Executive Director of iDP Diana Bowman and Thad Miller, co-directors of the Center for Smart Cities and Regions, with Dominic Papa, executive director and co-founder of the Institute of Digital Progress. Photo by Marissa Huth/School for the Future of Innovation in Society

Working closely with policy-makers, city planners, entrepreneurs, industry leaders and the public, the center will enhance the capacity of cities and regions to use data analytics and emerging technologies.

"We increasingly have the tools and the technologies to address local, regional and global problems,” said Diana Bowman, co-director of the center and associate professor with the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. “However, unless these technologies are developed and deployed in a way that is responsive and responsible, their potential benefits are unlikely to be realized.”

One of the center's first partnerships will be with the Institute of Digital Progress and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council who, on March 28, announced the Greater Phoenix Smart Region initiative at the Smart Cities Connect conference in Kansas City. On stage, Dominic Papa, executive director of the Institute of Digital Progress, and Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, spoke of the center and the ways in which the entities will be able to work together.

“By partnering with the Center for Smart Cities and Regions at Arizona State University, the regional effort will be able to continually refine smart technology solutions. This partnership will enable the region to harness the knowledge and capacity of the most innovative university in the nation," Papa said.

Additional current projects include:

ASU as Smart Living Lab  The Center for Smart Cities and Regions will work with the ASU University Technology Office to build a “smart campus” that makes the ASU community experience better. For example, the center is collaborating with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering in examining the use of Amazon Echo devices in use by engineering students residing in Tooker House.

Governance of Autonomous Vehicles — The center is working is working with cities, including Tempe, to manage the risks and benefits of self-driving cars.

Educational Programs — The center will develop of educational programs around smart technology with the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, including the Smart City Academy, graduate certificates and concentrations.

Opening Pathways for Discovery, Research, and Innovation in Health — A collaboration between patients and traditional researchers to explore the processes around discovery, research, and innovation in health and healthcare where patients have created and shared a closed-loop artificial pancreas. The project, led by a patient as principal investigator, is supported with grant funding by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Rapidly emerging technologies, like autonomous vehicles, present both risks and opportunities to cities,” said center co-director Thad Miller, assistant professor with the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Polytechnic School at ASU. “[The center] works with city policy-makers and planners — as well as industry and the public — to help them leverage technology to meet their goals and community needs.”

The center will take a multi-disciplinary approach to collaborative research by bridging the gap between science and technology research and urban governance.

To learn more and become involved with the projects and initiatives, visit the Center for Smart Cities and Regions

Senior Manager, Communications and Marketing Strategy, School for the Future of Innovation in Society


ASU’s CSPO again ranked one of the world’s top think tanks for science and tech policy

March 8, 2018

Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO), a research unit of the Institute for the Future of Innovation in Society, has once again been named one of the top 10 think tanks for science and technology policy in the latest edition of the University of Pennsylvania’s “Global Go To Think Tank Index.”

This is the second consecutive year that CPSO has been ranked in ninth place and the fourth consecutive year it has appeared in the top 10. The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) of the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, with the voting help of a panel of more than 1,900 peer institutions and experts from the media, academia, public and private-donor institutions and governments, publishes the annual index ranking the world’s leading think tanks in a variety of categories. Local community members talk around table about driver-less cars CSPO researchers hold a forum with local community members on the topic of driver-less cars. Photo by Kimberly Quach

“It is always a great honor to be recognized in these rankings, which come from our peers across the globe,” says Dave Guston, co-director of CSPO and director of ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS). “It indicates the reach and impact of the work that we do.”

“Our goal is to help bring scientific and technological advance into better alignment with societal needs and aspirations,” says Daniel Sarewitz, CSPO co-founder and co-director. Founded in 1999, CSPO also sits at the core of the research and policy engagement activities of SFIS, which was created in 2015. CSPO is dedicated to understanding the linkages between science and technology and its effects on society and to developing knowledge and tools that can more effectively connect progress in science and technology to progress toward desired societal outcomes.

Notable recent projects that have solidified the consortium’s thought-leadership status include:

  • Citizen Perspectives on Driverless Vehicles — Technological innovation is a powerful force for social change—perhaps the most powerful such force in today’s world—yet it is rarely subject to focused, anticipatory democratic deliberation. In recent decades, however, tools for steering technological change in democratically responsive ways have been developed, tested and to a limited degree deployed. CPSO is working with the Kettering Foundation to bring citizens’ perspectives to bear on the emergence of a potentially world-transforming technology: self-driving vehicles.
  • Exploring Democratic Governance of Solar Geoengineering Research — Using similar, innovative methods of public engagement, CSPO researchers are investigating the governance of solar geoengineering research — a futuristic strategy to directly intervene in global climate by limiting the effect that the sun’s energy has in heating the planet. Prompted by concerns about climate-change risks, some scientists and commentators argue that research on this approach should now be pursued as one element of climate policy. Others are concerned that even researching these ideas might lead to the inadvisable development and deployment of fundamentally uncertain and irreversible technologies.  Both sides agree that this is not an issue to be decided by scientists alone. Funded by the Sloan Foundation, the CSPO research team will gain important insights into how geoengineering research governance can be responsive to public perspectives and will connect these insights directly to early governance efforts at the national and global level.
  • Think, Write Publish: Science and Religion — Despite their rich, interwoven history, our polarized societies seem to encourage the proposition that these two ways of knowing the world cannot productively co-exist, that they encounter each other through conflict and contradiction. This project advances the proposition that science and religion can reinforce each other to allow a more nuanced, profound and rewarding experience of our world and our place in it. Using creative nonfiction writing to explore and advance this proposition, CSPO — with funding from the Templeton Foundation — is building a new community of storytellers who will write, publish and disseminate engaging and inspiring nonfiction narratives of harmonies, reconciliation and even productive interaction between science and religion.

The consortium draws on the intellectual resources of Arizona State University and other institutions for the scholarly foundation to assess and foster outcome-based policies across a broad portfolio of publicly funded scientific research. The consortium’s core commitment is to generating useable knowledge for real-world decision making.

Read the 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index.

Senior Manager, Communications and Marketing Strategy, School for the Future of Innovation in Society


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The large impact of microgrids

Microgrids can bring stable power resources to even the most remote communities.
February 22, 2018

ASU engineer makes strides in technologies that promise to make electrical power more accessible almost anywhere on the planet

Nathan Johnson’s research is playing a significant role in the quest to overcome energy poverty throughout the world.

As many as 1.3 billion people lack access to electrical power, said Johnson, who directs the Laboratory for Energy And Power Solutions, called LEAPS, at Arizona State University.

The primary focus of his lab’s research and industry collaborations is advancing technologies for electrical-grid modernization and off-grid electrification.

One of his solutions is microgrids, which provide independent power generation and storage systems capable of operating as mobile or standalone systems or as a supplemental part of larger conventional power grids.

“Advances in microgrid technology can bring stable power resources to even the most remote and poor communities,” said Johnson, an assistant professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering’s Polytechnic School and senior sustainability scientist with ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

Better microgrid technology would also vastly improve energy-supply scenarios for military and disaster-relief operations, hospitals and data centers, as well as for industries such as mining or oil exploration and drilling that often need mobile, off-grid power generation. Large public infrastructure operations, critical emergency services and aviation operations would also benefit.

Reducing time for microgrid design

Johnson and his LEAPS team — currently 20 students and four staff members — are at work making those off-grid power systems a more technically and economically viable option.

One of the lab’s strategic partners is XENDEE, a California-based company that develops cloud-computing solutions for microgrid and smart-grid project management and power-system analysis.

LEAPS and XENDEE have together taken on the challenge of figuring out how to create simulation technologies that will integrate myriad technical, financial, public policy and regulatory factors into a methodology for designing and building customized microgrids much faster than is feasible at present.

Their approach and their tools make it possible for users to design a microgrid in days rather than weeks.  

That feat was recognized recently when XENDEE’s computer-simulation software and Johnson’s approach to military microgrids won a TechConnect Defense Innovation Award at the Defense Innovation Technology Acceleration Challenges Summit — a conference of leaders in defense, security and technology industries, along with U.S. government and military officials.

Video by Krisanna Mowen/ASU

Industry, military collaborations produce progress

Another goal is to produce designs “that make microgrids more modular and scalable,” Johnson said. “We want microgrids that can be increased in size seamlessly and adapt their functions as the needs of communities and other users grow and change.”

Two other LEAPS projects are putting the lab’s microgrid system concept-to-construction skills into action.

Collaborating with FastGrid, a company based in Queen Creek, Arizona, Johnson and his team have been able to see their designs and technologies employed in mobile microgrids that the company is producing and commercializing.

The FastGrid Solo is a microgrid that can be quickly disassembled, easily transported and reassembled, and it provides a fully independent system for clean power generation, with options for water purification and communications capability.

Working with the Office of Naval Research through its NEPTUNE Initiative (Naval Enterprise Partnership Teaming with Universities for National Excellence), Johnson’s team is also developing the interfaces and controls to combine advanced microgrid technologies in a fashion similar to the way LEGO building blocks fit together.

Those projects display the versatility and resiliency of the technologies and systems that LEAPS and its collaborators are creating.

These microgrids make use of renewable-energy sources — including solar power, wind, biodiesel fuels and lithium-ion battery storage — and feature advanced systems controls that help lower operation costs while ensuring more overall system dependability.

Building the workforce to modernize power grids

Johnson is developing many of these innovations at the one-acre Grid Modernization and Microgrid Test Bed on ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

His projects are also demonstrating advances in stronger fortifications to protect microgrid systems against theft, cyberattacks and extreme weather events.

Beyond all that, Johnson’s work includes efforts to bolster workforce development for the energy industry.

“As much as all the advanced technologies, we also need highly trained people if we’re going to help modernize the grid and provide power to off-grid communities,” Johnson said.

LEAPS has been conducting courses and other educational activities, including a “Microgrid Boot Camp,” to teach system design, operation, installation and maintenance to industry engineers and technicians as well as entrepreneurs and students. More than 100 have undergone instruction in the past two years — nearly all of them are U.S. military veterans.

Participants go through an intense hands-on one-week professional development course in computer simulation-based design and system integration.

Said Johnson, “If we can help provide power that is clean and renewable, that reduces the costs of energy and is transportable and adaptable to different environments, our work could go a long way toward meeting basic needs and providing a platform for economic development around the world.”

Top photo: Nathan Johnson is pictured at the Grid Modernization and Microgrid Test Bed on Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus. The Fulton Schools assistant professor’s research team is making advances in microgrid technologies to provide communities with more reliable, adaptable, resilient and affordable energy. Photo by Krisanna Mowen/ASU 

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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ASU joins UC3 coalition to tackle climate change issues

February 6, 2018

13 leading universities will work to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future

Arizona State University is part of a new coalition of 13 leading research universities that will help communities achieve their climate goals and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future.

The group, called the University Climate Change Coalition, or UC3, includes distinguished universities from the United States, Canada and Mexico. The universities have committed to mobilizing their resources and expertise to help businesses, cities and states achieve their climate goals.

Formation of UC3 was announced today at the Second Nature 2018 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit, being held in Tempe.

Original members of UC3 are: ASU; California Institute of Technology; Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey; La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; The Ohio State University; The State University of New York (SUNY) system; The University of British Columbia; The University of California system; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Maryland, College Park; The University of New Mexico; The University of Toronto; and The University of Washington.

Among initial specific UC3 goals are:

Cross-sector forums: Every UC3 institution will convene a climate change forum in 2018 to bring together community and business leaders, elected officials and advocates. Forums will be tailored to meet local and regional objectives focusing on research-driven policies and solutions to assist various communities.

Coalition climate mitigation and adaptation report: A coalition-wide report, to be released in late 2018, will synthesize the best practices, policies and recommendations from all UC3 forums into a framework for continued progress on climate change goals across the nation and the world.

All UC3 members have already pledged to reduce their institutional carbon footprints, with commitments ranging from making more climate-friendly investments to becoming operationally carbon neutral in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Under2MOU for subnational climate leaders. 

“While college and university campuses across the country are, in aggregate, responsible for only about 3 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions emitted in the U.S., we are educating 100 percent of our future political, business and social leaders,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “This fact alone places significant accountability on higher education and its leaders to take action.” 

UC3 was formed at the request of the University of California system and its president, Janet Napolitano. 

woman speaking on panel

Former Arizona governor and current University of California President Janet Napolitano raises a few issues her schools face at the announcement of the creation of UC3.

“The University of California system is thrilled to partner with this group of preeminent research universities on an issue that has long been a major strategic priority for all of our institutions,” Napolitano said. “No one is better positioned than we are to scale up research-based climate solutions.”

Harnessing the unique resources and convening power of member institutions, the coalition will work to inform and galvanize local, regional and national action on climate change. Coalition members will bring to these efforts a critical body of expertise in areas including advanced climate modeling, energy storage systems, next generation solar cells and devices, energy-efficiency technologies, biofuels, smart grids, regulatory and policy approaches, etc.

“The research university has played an important role in creating new knowledge, convening thought leadership, and serving as long-term community members,” said Timothy Carter, president of Second Nature. “By applying these strengths to locally relevant climate challenges, we see transformative potential for accelerating climate solutions in these locations in a way that couldn’t happen if the institutions and sectors continued to act on their own.”

Crow added Arizona State, which established the first freestanding School of Sustainability in the U.S. in 2006 and had the first degree program, has several other projects that focus on dealing with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and limiting future emissions.

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ASU President Michael Crow speaks at the announcement of the creation of University Climate Change Coalition, or UC3, at the start of the closing plenary at the Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit at the DoubleTree by Hilton Phoenix-Tempe, on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

These efforts include:

• ASU is working to reach its commitments to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from building energy sources by 2025, and from all sources by 2035. Between 2007 and 2017, ASU reduced emissions per on-campus student by 46 percent.

• ASU has one of the largest university solar installations in the U.S., with 88 solar installations — more than 82,000 photovoltaic panels — that generate 24.1 MWdc, which, combined with ASU’s off-site solar fulfills 30 percent of ASU’s electricity needs.

• ASU has a power purchase agreement with Arizona Public Service at the Red Rock Solar Plant near Picacho Peak, Arizona. The agreement allows ASU to secure solar power from the plant during a 20-year span and adds approximately 29 MWdc to ASU’s solar generating supply. 

• ASU researchers, led by Klaus Lackner in the ASU Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, are developing a device that removes carbon dioxide from the air for re-use or sequestration.

• The Center for Carbon Removal, in partnership with ASU and several other research institutions, launched a new industrial innovation initiative to develop solutions that transform waste carbon dioxide in the air into valuable products and services. The Initiative for a New Carbon Economy is focusing on rethinking the climate challenge as a new economic opportunity, and figuring out how to reuse carbon in real, valuable and lasting ways.

• ASU researchers have developed a software system called Hestia that can estimate greenhouse gas emissions across entire urban landscapes, down to roads and individual buildings. The software provides high resolution maps identifying CO2 emission sources in a way that policymakers can utilize and the public can understand. Hestia can provide cities with a complete, three-dimensional picture of where, when and how carbon dioxide emissions are occurring.

Top photo courtesy pixabay.com

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


QESST student wins NSF's Perfect Pitch competition

December 28, 2017

Sebastian Husein, a scholar in the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies National Science Foundation-Department of Energy Engineering Research Center, won the NSF’s Perfect Pitch competition at its biennial meeting. This marks the second straight time that a QESST student from Assistant Professor Mariana Bertoni’s group has won the $5,000 prize and brought back the Lynn Preston trophy.

Husein, a materials science and engineering doctoral student in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, had only 90 seconds to pitch his idea of deploying PV modules to places with interrupted infrastructure, but that was enough time to win over the panel of judges. Photo of Sebastian Husein holding a trophy in a lab. Sebastian Husein became the second consecutive student from Mariana Bertoni's group to bring home the Lynn Preston Trophy after winning the NSF's Perfect Pitch competition. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

“The idea really sprung out of the hurricanes that hit Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico,” Husein said. “It’s a massive humanitarian crisis, especially in Puerto Rico, and the largest needs became obvious very quickly: power and drinkable water. I wanted to highlight an idea that could address both these issues, and the versatility of solar energy is well suited for that.”

Husein titled his idea “Solar Optimized Kit for Emergency Deployment." This deployable floating platform with bifacial solar cells produces energy, even under cloudy conditions, and acts as emergency aid for areas affected by floods and hurricanes. The energy created runs a water purification system, essential for disaster aftermath.

Bertoni, his mentor and professor, and with the DEfECT Lab worked with Husein to develop his idea and perfect his presentation.

“Her enthusiastic support and encouragement is what allows Pablo [Coll] and I to take part in and achieve a lot in competitions like Perfect Pitch,” Husein said. Pablo Guimerá Coll won the competition in 2015 with his project, “Sound Assisted Low Temperature Wafering for Silicon Modules.”

Bertoni, an electrical engineering assistant professor, believes the communication skills used in pitching ideas, a key factor in this competition, are important for engineers.

“Being able to convey complicated ideas in a simple way is a skill that I think every engineer should have,” Bertoni said. “I strongly encourage my students to develop their communication skills and find the right balance of what to say and how to say it based on their audience.”

This win was a step forward for Husein, who is optimistic for the future of renewable energy.

“I’m incredibly excited to see what our society does with renewable energy,” Husein said. “Some say our dependency on fossil fuels will remain for decades and decades, but we’ve already had massive amounts of solar integration.”

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

ASU engineering grad plans to use solar energy to better the Philippines, her home country

December 14, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

While Brigitte Lim was working on her applied project to promote employment in her home country of the Philippines through solar energy, she stumbled upon an opportunity to amplify her project’s reach. Brigitte Lim Brigitte Lim was recognized for her work using solar energy to solve employment challenges in the Philippines with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network Youth Prize awarded through the Geneva Challenge. Photo by Monique Clement/ASU Download Full Image

Lim heard about the Geneva Challenge: Advancing Development Goals contest while she was taking an international development elective course in spring 2017. Seeing that the competition’s theme was solving challenges of employment, it was an easy choice to apply with the work she had already started.

“I thought I’d enter this competition to get the word out about my idea,” said Lim, a recent graduate of the Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization professional science master’s degree program (PSM SEEC) at Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Little did she know where the opportunity would take her. With the help of a team of international and interdisciplinary graduate students, a passion for solar energy and a desire to make a difference in her community, she would end up catching the attention of a United Nations program.

Journey to a solar future

After completing her bachelor’s degree in management of applied chemistry at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines, Lim went to work as a Teach for Philippines fellow, working for two years to help transform education in the country. It was a good way to pursue her passion for teaching, and she made some good connections with others interested in social action in her country.

When it came time to start her master’s degree, Lim was interested in environmental science and solar energy in particular. Not finding any programs close to home that supported her goals, she found her way to ASU through a scholarship called STRIDE offered through the United States Agency for International Development for Filipino students looking for professional science master’s degree programs.

“ASU had the most relevant program for me because it wasn’t just the physics of solar cells,” Lim said. “It was more business and applied photovoltaics, how the technology works, how to market it and commercialize it.”

ASU’s PSM SEEC program considers applications from students with any science, technology, engineering or mathematics background, making this unique ASU degree program a perfect fit for Lim. As part of the program, Lim participated in an energy policy seminar in Washington, D.C., attended international solar energy conferences, interned voluntarily with GRID Alternatives over the summers and installed residential solar photovoltaic systems with GRID Alternatives as part of Solar Spring Break.

“These opportunities made available through the PSM SEEC program let us see solar outside of the classroom, and I feel like that is very beneficial because you’re learning by actual interaction with industry,” Lim said.

This experience helped her see how the solar industry could be beneficial to communities in the Philippines, and she got to work on her applied project.

Putting her ideas out there

The Geneva Challenge is actually a group competition for graduate students. So, Lim reached out to some former colleagues from her days working with Teach for Philippines: Anna Gabrielle Alejo, a graduate student studying developmental psychology at the Columbia University Teacher’s College; Jerome Bactol, a candidate for a master’s degree in community development at the University of the Philippines and project development officer of the Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare and Development; and Jose Eos Trinidad, a recent graduate who studied social sciences at the University of Chicago and is now working as a researcher of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Institute for the Science and Art of Learning and Teaching.

Combined with her knowledge of opportunities throughout the value chain of the solar industry, these colleagues helped to expand upon additional social theories and local government program opportunities related to employment and underserved communities.

Together over Skype from Tempe, New York City, Chicago and Manila, they worked hard over the summer to build upon Lim’s base project for the competition’s requirements.

They created Solar N3E: Solar Network for Energy, Education and Employment — a social enterprise that integrates research, training and networking to expand employment opportunities in the Philippines through the solar industry.

The project’s goal is to minimize in-work poverty, urban unemployment and the number of youths who are not in education, employment or training. With the help of government programs in education, Solar N3E will help marginalized community members get the training they need to  find employment in the nation’s growing solar energy industry.

A roller coaster of a final semester

In August, they received an “email of disappointment” saying they didn’t make it to the semifinal round, Lim said. Happy they had tried, Lim got back to work on her PSM SEEC applied project and job searching as her graduation date neared.

Brigitte Lim shows off her mortarboard with a solar-themed design in front of Wells Fargo Arena at the Fulton Schools Convocation ceremony.

Brigitte Lim shows off her decorated mortarboard with a solar and Philippines flag theme at the Fall 2017 Fulton Schools Convocation ceremony. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Then in November, Lim and her teammates learned they had won the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Youth Prize.

The Geneva Challenge partnered with the U.N. SDSN Youth Prize to award a special prize to three additional Geneva Challenge teams for the first time in 2017.

The Solar N3E project joined two other international teams’ projects to solve employment challenges in Africa that were recognized as part of the new prize.

These projects will be showcased on the Youth Solutions Report platform, which puts youth-led solutions projects in front of a network of institutional partners, experts, private companies and media outlets to gain potential supporters, investors and donors.  

A future of possibilities

After graduating, Lim will return home and get to work on filling out the details of Solar N3E for the Youth Solutions Report platform, and begin working as a business developer at Japan Solar in Manila, Philippines.

After her Geneva Challenge run stopped short, she was fully invested in beginning her work in industry, but she can now also further her work to implement Solar N3E.

“I think working with Japan Solar is not bad for trying to implement my idea because having this job helps me interact with competitors and the customers the solar industry serves,” Lim said. “I can immerse myself in the local industry, which makes the plan more feasible.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU research offers hydropower dam energy solution without sacrificing Mekong food supply

December 7, 2017

The Mekong River is an economic engine for fishermen and a food source for millions of people worldwide. Nearly 100 hydropower dams are planned for construction along tributaries off the river’s 2,700-mile stretch, which flows through Burma, China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.

But while the dams are expected to provide clean energy to the region, if not managed properly, they also have the potential to offset natural river patterns, which would damage food production, supply and business. Tonle Sap Fishing Village A boat in Cambodia's Tonle Sap Fishing Village. Photo by John Sabo/Arizona State University. Download Full Image

Arizona State University Professor John Sabo and collaborators have proposed a solution in the Dec. 8 issue of Science magazine that allows dam operators to generate power in ways that also protect — and possibly improve — food supplies and businesses throughout the Mekong river basin. 

“We have figured out the relationship between river flows and fish catch, and we have developed an algorithm for dam operators to use that will increase fish harvests and still generate power,” Sabo said. “Dams are going to be built no matter how much fuss we make; our research shows how we can be more strategic about the buildout and operations of these dams in the Mekong.”

The proposed solution, the first of its kind for this problem, can be applied to other large river systems around the world facing similar tradeoffs.

The Mekong river floods annually, and it is known that those floods are important for fisheries, Sabo said. New in this research is the recognition that seasonal droughts are equally important. Long droughts combined with short floods may create the ideal conditions for terrestrial nutrients to be entrained into the freshwater system.

With that in mind, the algorithm presented by Sabo et al. in Science recommends long low-flow periods punctuated by pulses of flooding, which will allow dam operators to co-manage their power generation priorities, while protecting livelihoods for fisheries downstream.

Sabo worked with other ASU researchers on the project, as well as researchers from the University of Washington, University of Maryland, Conservation International, the University of South Florida, the Mekong River Commission and Aalto University.

“We have taken this conversation around fisheries and dams in the Mekong from a yes-or-no conversation, from a good idea-bad idea conversation, and we have come up with an alternative, a mathematical formula that has the possibility to achieve dam operator goals and protect fisheries,” said Gordon Holtgrieve, an assistant professor at the University of Washington.

With recent funding from the National Science Foundation, Sabo, Holtgrieve and a team of researchers will expand the project to better understand how dam operators can balance power generation needs with other factors, including rice production, food nutritional quality and ecological goals. 

Leslie Minton

USPCAS-E scholars in it to win at Arizona Student Energy Conference

November 16, 2017

Scholars from the U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Energy, better known as USPCAS-E, who attend the University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar and Arizona State University will be bringing home an award that will make their friends, family and country proud.

They competed with a range of graduate and postdoctoral level candidates from Arizona’s top universities in an annual two-day symposium focusing on renewable energy, technology and policy at the Sixth Annual Student Conference on Renewable Energy Science, Technology and Policy. USPCAS-E Poster Award Winners Scholars from the US-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Energy, University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar pose in front of their poster titled, “Hybrid Energy Testbeds for Remote Communities of Pakistan.” Winners listed: Khuram Shahzad (left), Muhammad Shoaib Khalid (fourth from the left), Kiran Israr (seventh from the left), Ahmad Amin and Adnan Zahid (right). Download Full Image

Muhammad Shoaib Khalid, Khuram Shahzad, Kiran Israr, Adnan Zahid and Ahmad Amin were honored with the Distinguished Poster Award. Their poster was titled, “Hybrid Energy Testbeds for Remote Communities of Pakistan” and focused on the integration of different types of generation systems, like using solar, micro-hydro and biomass systems.

USPCAS-E is a major energy research project funded by USAID in Pakistan dealing with applied and joint research. This project poster, like USPCAS-E’s goals, is focused on improving conditions for the scholars’ home country which suffers from extreme rolling blackouts in urban as well as in rural areas.

Shahzad stated that, “According to [a] World Bank report, 44 percent of [Pakistan’s] rural population is not connected to grid and deprived of electricity.” Exploring hybrid energy solutions could relieve the strain felt in rural Pakistan.

Khalid, principal investigator of the joint project emphasized the tapping of renewable energy resources for electrification of rural communities of Pakistan and the importance of their work at ASU’s Photovoltaic Reliability Lab under the supervision of Govindasamy Tamizhmani, a faculty member who studies energy efficient technologies in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. 

He explained that the joint project team, “aim[ed] to provide a foundation for [a] nationwide roll-out of microgrids with multiple generation[al] options including solar PV, solar/biomass, biomass, micro-hydro and genset.”

This is the fourth cohort of scholars participating in this USAID-funded exchange program. ASU is looking forward to hosting future award-winning scholars with the intent of furthering research into renewables while fortifying Pakistan’s energy future.

Erika Gronek

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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How will the Navajo walk away from coal?

October 19, 2017

ASU receives grant from Department of Commerce to study the question, work on economically and culturally smart solutions

Last week the federal government awarded nearly $420,000 to the Navajo and Hopi tribes to prepare for the closure of a coal-fired power plant and mine.

The Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, and the Kayenta Mine that supplies it with coal will shut down in 2019 unless a new owner for the power plant is found.

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced financial support Wednesday for Navajo and Hopi communities dealing with the declining use of coal. About $250,000 goes to Arizona State University for projects related to the power plant and mine closures.

Martin Pasqualetti, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at ASU, is working on possible solutions.

“Nothing happens if the Navajo don’t want it to happen,” said Pasqualetti, an expert on renewable energy, energy policy and human factors in science and technology. “That’s the first step.”

The Navajo will lose an estimated 800 jobs: 500 at the power plant and 300 to 350 at the mine. They’re looking at how to replace the jobs and the revenues that the power plant and mine provided.

The university will work on what the implications are of closing that plant, and what the opportunities might be for doing something new. How do you come up with new jobs? What are economic development options?

“$200,000 doesn’t get you very far, but we’ll do something,” Pasqualetti said.

Pasqualetti wrote a paper last year about the cultural challenges of implementing renewable energy on the reservation.

The plant is adjacent to the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation. They will be among tribal members who have the final say in what comes after the plant shutters.

“That is another aspect: getting the chapter interested in working with us,” he said. “It’s always a bit complicated; it doesn’t matter what entity you’re dealing with — there are always complications you don’t anticipate, and the Navajo nation is no exception. Even if we work with LeChee, there may have to be other characteristics we have to deal with.”

We spoke with Pasqualetti about the issues facing the area after the plant closes, the opportunities available, and how a giant art and energy project might take advantage of the area’s tourism draw.

Question: When the plant closes, what will the Navajo Nation have to work with?

Answer: You have a 2,000-acre site, you’ve got 800 miles of transmission lines that all emanate from there, you’ve got a water supply, and you’ve got workers, infrastructure, roads — everything is there. You don’t have to deal with any of that. To put in something else, you don’t have to find a new site, a new transmission corridor — it’s a very, very valuable site if you want to generate electricity, and that’s what they want to do.

Another aspect of this is renewable energy. Is that the best option? There’s been discussion of converting it to a gas plant. That doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, for a lot of reasons. It’s expensive to convert it. The closest nearby gas line is a line that goes across the Little Colorado at Cameron. I would imagine that’s about 80 miles in a straight line to the power plant. I can’t imagine that makes any economic sense.

Q: How could the issue of implementing renewable energy from a cultural standpoint be addressed?

A: There’s a group called the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI). It’s been in existence about 10 years. Every two years they have a competition to design the most beautiful renewable energy (facilities) you can design for a particular area. They did one in Dubai in the desert. They did one in New York, in Fresh Kills on Staten Island. They did one in Copenhagen and they did one in Santa Monica last year. ... The plant is closing, and 2020 is the next competition. If we can marry those two, the idea being that we can design a tourist attraction with renewables and make something strikingly beautiful. If you look up up LAGI ... not only is each one visually attractive, but they generate electricity. Some of them desalt water.

Getting back to your question, what about renewable energy on Navajo? You could put renewable energy there, but does it produce a lot of jobs? No. Jobs during construction, yes, but jobs during operation, no. ... You can operate that with a dozen to two people. Not much goes wrong. If you can combine these big arrays of photovoltaics with an enhancement there that is visually attractive and alluring and it’s the result of an international design competition ... that’s a possibility. There’s a lot of moving parts. You’ve got to get the Navajo to say yes. ... If you’ve got 3.5 million people going to Lake Powell, a million go to the dam, they go to Horseshoe Bend, they float down and fish, they go to Antelope Canyon — every time I’ve been up there it’s bus after bus after bus. Then you put this beautiful installation next to it that happens to be renewable and fit it in with the landscape and tell the Navajo story ... The Tate Museum in London is a great example. It’s a world-class museum in an old power plant.

Q: How will Page be helped to transition?

A: I read an article in the local Page paper about a month ago and they said they’ll be fine without the power plant ... you still have millions of people going there. It’s astounding the number of tour buses you see up there. ... It’s still the shortest way from Zion and Bryce to the Grand Canyon, so along the way they stop and see the dam, Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.

Top photo: Colorado River with the Page, Arizona, city area on the right and Navajo generating station in the background. Photo by Adbar/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


Emeritus professor’s return boosts ASU’s solar-energy engineering education endeavors

October 3, 2017

When Emeritus Professor Ron Roedel retired in 2011 after 30 years of teaching and research in electrical engineering, there was one thing his longtime colleague and friend Michael Kozicki thought was inevitable.

“I knew it wasn’t going to last,” he said. Ron Roedel stands near the “Power Pergola” in the back yard of his home in a historic neighborhood in Phoenix. The photovoltaic system atop a trellis structure supplies all of the electricity for his house. In recent years he has become more active in public advocacy to promote the development of solar power infrastructure as a renewable energy resource. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU Download Full Image

The promising work being done in Roedel’s area of expertise — solar energy engineering — in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering “was just too strong of a lure for him,” Kozicki said.

Roedel’s focus had been on semiconductor technology when he earned his doctoral degree in electrical engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles in the mid-1970s and then started work at the internationally prominent Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey.

Roedel says he gained some “really high-quality research experience” there, but after five years in the eastern part of the country he missed the West. And he was restless to pursue what he felt was his true calling: teaching.

He joined Arizona State University’s faculty in 1981 and began conducting research in a new area that the engineering college leaders asked him to tackle — experimenting with various materials for solar cells to see if those materials could make cells more efficient in converting sunlight into electricity.

His students’ research in solar cells made from gallium arsenide and other so-called III-V semiconductor materials was promising, but it was obvious that there were going to be big obstacles to commercialization of these devices.

But Roedel’s work soon earned support through the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Presidential Young Investigator Award and he attracted more financial backing from industry.

“He came up with some really interesting new structures for solar cells,” recalled Kozicki, who joined ASU’s electrical engineering faculty in 1985 and met Roedel on the first day of work.

Teaming up on energy education outreach efforts

For various reasons, funding for solar energy research dropped in the mid-1980s and into the ‘90s, so Roedel shifted to more general research on semiconductor materials and devices.

He also became more heavily involved in research in engineering education, and was one of the co-principal investigators in the NSF-sponsored Engineering Education Coalition awarded to ASU in 1995.

When support for the solar energy enterprises picked up again, Kozicki said, “Ron came back strong” in his efforts to help move the solar field forward.

“When he takes on a challenge, it’s more than an interest. He throws his entire weight into it,” he said. “Ron gets completely immersed in both his research and teaching.”

Roedel’s post-retirement re-immersion into academia was not quite so intense at first, but his colleagues steadily drew him back into a several educational endeavors. At first, he answered a call to mentor students on their senior-year engineering capstone design projects.

He was later recruited by leaders of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Development office and the Global Institute of Sustainability to aid some of their international outreach efforts.

In 2013, he teamed with Martin (“Mike”) Pasqualetti, a professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, to help faculty at An-Najah University in Nablus, Palestine make progress toward further development and commercialization of solar energy infrastructure in the region.

In 2016, he and Pasqualetti worked together again, this time in Kosovo, to develop plans for an academic program in renewable energy and sustainability engineering at the University of Prishtina.  As part of that project, they met with the Kosovo Energy Company to discuss strategies for the country to transition from lignite-fueled power plants to renewable power sources.

Taking on new leadership role

Earlier, back in 2010, Fulton Schools Professor Patrick Phelan had enlisted Roedel as a co-principal investigator, along with Professor Harvey Bryan, professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts' Design School, on a proposal to the NSF to establish a Professional Science Master’s program in Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization. The proposal was awarded in 2011, just as Roedel was signing his retirement documents.

Once the program was set in motion, admitting the first cohort of students later that same year, Phelan asked Roedel to teach some of its courses. But the terms of the retirement precluded Roedel from teaching at ASU for three years. But in 2014, Phelan and Bryan reached out a second time, and Roedel accepted.

He began by team-teaching a course in solar energy commercialization with Fulton Schools Professor of Practice Steve Trimble in the 2014 spring semester, then took over the Photovoltaic System Engineering course the following fall semester. He continues to teach those courses and has since also been advising many of the program’s students on their required Applied Projects.

Late this summer when Bryan decided to focus on other opportunities and stepped down as the program’s director, Roedel became concerned.

“I came back from retirement to help this program prosper, and it wasn’t clear who would step up to be the next director. The most qualified candidates already had too many commitments,” he said.

So he volunteered for the job. The previous directors and current program manager responded enthusiastically.

“His knowledge of the field of solar energy, and the vast number of connections he has throughout this industry, make him invaluable to moving this program on to the next level,” said Phelan, the program’s first director.

Professor David Allee, a fellow Fulton Schools electrical engineer, isn’t surprised Roedel stepped up to take on the role.

“He exemplifies the kind of truly gifted teacher for whom being an educator isn’t just a job but a passion,” Allee said.

man teaching class

There were “so many interesting things happening at ASU” in the solar energy field that Ron Roedel couldn’t resist accepting offers to get involved after his retirement. He’s been teaching classes the past few years in the Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization graduate program and recently took on the job as its director. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Plans for strengthening master’s degree program

“From my perspective, Ron’s retirement wasn’t what was best for ASU students,” Pasqualetti said. “Fortunately, he has stayed involved, coming back into the fold when asked, teaching classes for the little compensation that is offered to adjuncts, all for the joy of it, for the importance of it, and to share all the knowledge that he has so carefully accumulated over the years.”

A high percentage of students in of the Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization program are already landing high-level jobs, while others are starting their own businesses, teaching at the college level or getting accepted into doctoral programs in energy fields.

But Roedel isn’t looking merely to stay the course while he’s director. He says he’s committed to strengthening the program.

That will likely entail “redefining and repurposing” existing courses and developing new courses so that students graduate “armed with a comprehensive understanding of all the major aspects of the solar energy industry,” and “ready to be productive in the workforce from day one, and to meet biggest business, technology and policy challenges” in the field, he said.

He intends to build more extensive ties with local and national solar business leaders, primarily by expanding the program’s industrial advisory board with members from all the various stakeholders in the future of solar energy enterprises, including renewable energy advocacy groups and lawyers specializing in utility and regulation issues.

He also wants students to help enable the program to serve as a local resource, such as aiding the city of Tempe’s mission to forcefully move forward toward its goal of using to renewable energy for 100 percent of its energy needs. 

Speaking out on behalf of solar energy movement

With all of the goals on his agenda, Roedel still plans to keep up with the myriad interests he has been involved in for years before and since his now-interrupted retirement.

He is continually at work restoring and updating his house — originally built in 1929 — in a historic neighborhood near downtown Phoenix.

One of the projects was the design and construction of a photovoltaic system atop a backyard trellis structure he has christened the “Power Pergola.” The PV system generates enough solar electricity to provide for all of the home’s annual electrical load.

“The Power Pergola is also a data-generating platform for the photovoltaics classes. We can bring real Phoenix-area power and energy data into the classroom and then, for example, examine the exact impact of proposed utility rate changes on the value proposition of rooftop solar,” Roedel explains.

He finds time to ride his motorcycle, read poetry, get in workouts at the gym, host the occasional party, and hike in the wide, open spaces beyond the Phoenix area’s urban confines.

His attraction to the outdoors is reflected in his memberships in the Wilderness Society, the Arizona Trail Association, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Southern Utah Wilderness Association.

Roedel has also been a member of the Sierra Club for decades, initially for its hiking and wilderness experience activities. But in the last 10 or so years, he’s gotten more involved in the organization’s advocacy on environmental issues.

He has given public talks for the Sierra Club about solar energy, including on topics related to public policy issues and the potential impacts of actions by the Arizona Corporation Commission — the state’s public utilities regulatory body — that could promote or hinder the progress of solar energy ventures.

He has spoken before the commissioners, state legislators, city council members and other public administrators in efforts to advance the cause of renewable energy resources.

Pasqualetti said Roedel has already contributed substantially to the cause through his long career in teaching and research, “but he feels it is his duty as a citizen” to take a stand in the public arena.

“His activism shows the strong commitment he has to what he values,” Allee said.

Magnetism among his personality traits

Away from such serious pursuits, Roedel’s friends and colleagues see him as someone full of humor, energy and curiosity.

“In addition to solar energy and environmental quality,” Pasqualletti said, “he also knows more about beer, baseball, ethnic food and opera than anyone else I have ever met in my 40 years at ASU.”

“He’s a very animated person, and he has a way of getting people interested in his interests and luring them in,” Allee said. “He got me into riding motorcycles, which I’d never been inclined to do.”

Roedel brings the same kind of magnetic personality into the classroom, Kozicki said.

When they taught a course together some years ago, Kozicki recalled, “We would have these ‘I can top that’ competitions to see who could come up with the most obscure facts about the subject we were teaching, or who could stump the most students with a riddle for a homework problem. It was a riot.”

Particularly amusing among Roedel’s talents as a teacher, Kozicki said, is “how he can explain the most complicated things in a way that leaves people laughing their heads off. It’s amazing.”

Roedel “tailors his classes to encourage discussions and asking questions. I really like how he lets us go on talking but reins us in when we get off-topic,” said student Athena Combs-Hurtado, who enrolled in the Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization program because of its mix of engineering, business and public policy studies.

“He really knows a lot about what he is teaching and he’s able to communicate it to all of us on a level that makes it clear and understandable,” she added.

Continuing to contribute to students’ success

Roedel was 31 when he taught his first courses at ASU.

“Students kind of saw me as their smarter older brother,” he recalled. “I would tell them I was only two or three pages ahead of them in the text book.”

As years went by, he said, “They saw me as maybe someone like an experienced uncle. Now, it’s probably more as a wise, old grandfather.”

The return to work “has been a blast,” he added. “I left the university just as solar energy was making great strides toward becoming a major energy source for the future, and there were so many interesting things happening at ASU.”

Foremost among those interesting things was the master’s degree program he now directs.

“Under the leadership of Pat Phelan, Harvey Bryan and Program Manager Karen Dada it is already a very unique and very successful graduate program, and I really want to contribute to its continuing success,” Roedel said. “I think it’s one of the best new things this university is doing.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering