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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


ASU doctoral student’s research shows great potential for solar power

May 15, 2018

Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering has recognized Zhengshan “Jason” Yu as the 2018 exceptional electrical engineering doctoral student with the Palais Outstanding Doctoral Student Award.

The award was established in 2003 through the generosity of Emeritus Professor Joseph Palais and his wife, Sandra Palais, to honor excellence in research and academics. Photo of Steve Phillips and Zhengshan “Jason” Yu holding a plaque. Zhengshan “Jason” Yu receives the Palais Outstanding Doctoral Student Award from School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering Director Stephen Phillips at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Spring 2018 Gold Convocation Ceremony at Wells Fargo Arena on May 9, 2018. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU Download Full Image

Palais’ long career with the university began when he joined the engineering faculty in 1964. He was appointed as the electrical engineering graduate program chair more than two decades ago and has watched the university and the Fulton schools grow tremendously.

“What I’ve found is that the quality of the nominated PhD students far exceeds my expectations,” Palais said. “It’s unbelievable the point at which some of these graduates are. Their work could easily be that of a professor submitting a tenure package.”

Yu, who successfully defended his thesis and recently received his doctoral degree, earned the award for his research on record-breaking efficiency for silicon-based solar cells. This has the potential to make solar electricity costs more competitive in the future.

“It’s a tremendous honor to receive this award,” said Yu, an international student from Jinhua, China. “I don’t know how to describe the feeling. It’s a blessing to know my research is well appreciated by the community.”

While living in Shanghai, Yu noticed the poor air quality in winter due to vehicle emissions and the burning of fossil fuels as the country’s main energy source.

Air pollution poses an environmental risk to health as people inhale dangerous toxins, which can lead to heart and lung disease as well as other respiratory problems, according to the World Health Organization. The motivation to solve the problem fueled Yu’s research interest in renewable energy.

“I’m passionate about solving energy problems,” said Yu. “I can use my skills to help generate the clean electricity we need.”

Yu has a bachelor’s degree in microelectronics and a master’s degree in integrated circuits from Shanghai University, both of which support his research endeavors in photovoltaics — a branch of technology that involves converting light into electricity using semiconductor technology.

Currently, silicon solar cells dominate the photovoltaics market, representing 90 percent of the solar panels available commercially. They offer the highest efficiency at the lowest cost but are reaching their practical efficiency limit of roughly 25 percent. This could hinder the acceleration of solar energy in the renewable electricity market.

“I realized the silicon technology is approaching its theoretical efficiency limit,” said Yu, who conducts research under faculty adviser Zachary Holman, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. “The only proven way to break this limit is called a tandem technology, in which a solar cell of another material is stacked on top of silicon to make more efficient use of the full solar spectrum.”

The tandem technology compares to a tandem bicycle, which has a two-rider design. Two bicyclists are better than one when it comes to increasing efficiency and speed. The same is true for a silicon-based tandem solar cell with two materials working toward a similar goal.

Yu’s research seeks to engineer a solar cell tandem technology that pairs silicon with perovskite — an inexpensive, easily manufactured photovoltaic material. This pairing could increase the conversion efficiency to greater than 30 percent, which surpasses the limited efficiency of silicon solar cells alone at 27 percent. It could also achieve the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot 2030 program goal: a levelized cost of energy of three cents per kilowatt hour, which will help make solar electricity costs competitive with conventionally generated electricity.

Yu has more than 20 publications in peer-reviewed research journals and conference proceedings. He has also received several awards for presenting his research, including the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference Outstanding Technical Contribution Award, European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference Student Award, and the Materials Research Society Graduate Student Silver Award, among others.

Much of Yu’s success stems from Holman’s mentorship and the research infrastructure for photovoltaics in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. Yu said both gave him a well-rounded education on the various aspects of the photovoltaics industry.

“Zach gives me a lot of freedom in my research and encourages me to think and work on my own,” Yu said. “We also share the same vision that silicon tandems are the future. They can convert sunlight more efficiently, which means you can get your electricity much cheaper.”

Yu also lauded Holman for helping him become a better researcher. Yu benefitted immensely from Holman’s manuscript writing class, where he learned how to communicate with different people about his research, both in papers and talks.

Yu encourages doctoral students in the Fulton Schools to stay curious and be persistent in their studies and research projects.

“If something doesn’t work, find out why and get it done,” he said. “Remember to do research on a topic you are passionate about so you’re driven to focus on solving the most critical problems.”

Amanda Stoneman

Senior Marketing Content Specialist, EdPlus


ASU, Phoenix call for ventures to innovate for waste prevention and diversion

April 6, 2018

After a successful launch with nine initial ventures, Arizona State University, in collaboration with the city of Phoenix, renews a call for innovators and entrepreneurs to participate in the RISN Incubator, a diverse solutions business development and accelerator program.

The RISN Incubator assists aspiring new ventures that focus on waste diversion and improvements in processing or utilization of waste as a raw material for new products or energy in the early stages of development. Selected enterprises receive unique access to resources and support from ASU — named the most innovative school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report for three straight years — and Phoenix — named the Top Performing City overall by Governing and Living Cities — to develop solutions that contribute to the regional circular economy. ASU Phoenix RISN Incubator ventures RISN Incubator ventures from the program's first cohort, including Renewlogy, Trash Zero and Blue Green Recycle, collaborate and provide feedback on each other's startups. Download Full Image

“We are excited to welcome a new cohort of innovators into the RISN Incubator network that will help drive a vibrant circular economy in this region, a goal our partners at the city of Phoenix are committed to fostering alongside ASU,” said Alicia Marseille, director of the RISN Incubator. “Our initial cohort has seen their ventures receive additional funding, be honored with innovation awards and go through acquisitions from larger corporations.”

The RISN Incubator provides technical assistance, access to technical experts including university faculty and departments like the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering for their advancement, workshops and training, business plan and growth strategy development, access to feedstock from Phoenix’s waste transfer station, and a process for continuous evaluation and pre-qualification for funding opportunities with introductions to funders.

“By cultivating public-private partnerships to turn trash into new products, the city of Phoenix Public Works Department continues to drive the circular economy while stimulating local economic development. This call helps us move forward in continuing to support new ventures, increase our waste diversion rate and create economic impact in our city,” said Ginger Spencer, Phoenix Public Works director.

Startup concepts eligible for the incubator include, but are not limited to: conversion of solid waste into new material or energy; services that divert, reuse, or recycle; and software applications and design services that focus on sustainability. The priority waste feedstocks that the successful ventures will have access to include plastics, batteries, carpeting and carpet foam, broken furniture, mattresses, textiles, food waste, compost and plastic film.

The original cohort commenced in September 2017 with nine ventures that recently concluded their mentorship period within the incubator. Companies within the original cohort included:

• Renewlogy, developer of a proprietary chemical recycling process that allows plastic to be reversed back into its basic molecular structure, converting nonrecycled plastic waste into new valuable products such as high-value fuels. Renewlogy was a winner of the 2017 Arizona Innovation Open.

• Hathority, which specializes in software integration and application development in order to make societal impacts such as reducing landfill waste, improving recycling and changing customer behavior.

• Hygeia, an AI-based sorting device that will efficiently sort waste streams into categorizes such as compost, landfill and recyclables.

“The RISN Incubator has catalyzed our ability to do business better,” said Rhonda Steele, business development director for Hathority. “We are experiencing fast growth, and the incubator’s ability to mentor us at this stage has been key to our progress. Being part of a cohort of amazing and committed entrepreneurs has opened additional doors for collaboration and partnership opportunities we would not otherwise have had.”

Marseille will be a featured judge with the 2018 Sustainable Brands Innovation Open, which culminates in a final presentation and exhibition at Sustainable Brands’ annual conference in Vancouver in June. The winning venture from that challenge will be granted an invitation to join the Fall 2018 RISN Incubator cohort if their business plan meets the incubator’s mission of developing a circular economy.

This call for innovators and entrepreneurs is open until April 27. Find more information and the program application at the RISN Incubator website.

Jason Franz

Senior manager, Marketing and Communications, Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives


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