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ASU researchers aim to pull fuels out of thin air

July 21, 2016

Nonrenewable fossil fuels give liquid fuels a bad name.

But not all liquid fuels are fossil fuels, and fuels don’t have to be dirty. The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions’ novel air-capture technology features a plastic resin that captures carbon dioxide when dry, and releases it when moist. The process has promising new applications in creating carbon-neutral liquid fuels, a greene The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions’ novel air-capture technology features a plastic resin that captures carbon dioxide when dry, and releases it when moist. The process has promising new applications in creating carbon-neutral liquid fuels, a greener alternative to fossil fuels. Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

Fuels are considered dirty when they put new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which causes pollution and the buildup of environmentally detrimental greenhouse gases. But what if rather than using fuels that add carbon dioxide, we could create fuels that recycle carbon dioxide from the atmosphere?

Researchers at Arizona State University are exploring the idea of creating fuels that do just that: carbon-neutral liquid fuels. Think of them as fuels created out of thin air.

The endeavor builds on the advances being made at ASU’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, which is developing a technology that collects carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using an air-capture technique that literally scrubs it from the air and then captures it so it can be reused at an affordable cost — a carbon dioxide recycling program.

This effort moves toward closing the carbon cycle, which means making sure no new carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere — essential for ensuring that concentrations don’t surpass unsafe limits for life on Earth.

In addition to the environmental benefits of removing carbon dioxide, excessive amounts of it can be turned into carbon-neutral liquid fuels, making it a renewable energy source.

“The answer to our search for a sustainable future is likely to involve a combination of technologies — and fuels from air will play an important role.”

— Arvind Ramachandran, ASU environmental engineering doctoral student

How exactly can fuel be pulled from thin air? Like any magic act, it is surprisingly simple.  

First, the center's researchers generate hydrogen by using a renewable, carbon-free electricity source (such as wind energy or solar power) to split water through a process called electrolysis.

Second, this gaseous hydrogen is combined with the carbon dioxide captured from air.

What does this mixture produce? Methanol, an alcohol fuel similar to ethanol. Voila! Fuel from air.

Like ethanol, methanol can be blended with gasoline or further processed into gasoline.

“When this methanol or synthetic gasoline is burned, it releases carbon dioxide and water back into the atmosphere where it can then be recaptured and reused to make more fuel,” said Steve Atkins, a Center for Negative Carbon Emissions senior engineer who specializes in this technology.

Methanol can also be converted into plastics that would be carbon negative, or into other fuels such as diesel and jet fuel.

“If we can make air-capture affordable then we have a carbon-neutral feedstock to make liquid fuels and take advantage of abundant renewable energy,” said Christophe Jospe, who was CNCE’s chief strategist from September 2014 until June of this year and is now founding The Carbon A List to highlight the most promising approaches to capturing and recycling carbon dioxide.

The big impacts of this technology are threefold.

First, it can help society to go carbon neutral. Unlike fossil fuels, carbon-neutral liquid fuels do not add greenhouse gases or generate a net carbon footprint. Limiting, and preferably reducing, our carbon footprint is essential for sustaining life.

Second, this technology is attractive because carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be used within our current industrial infrastructure.

“If we can’t use the internal combustion engines in our cars, then we have wasted assets,” Jospe said. This renewable alternative can work within society’s current infrastructure and energy system and be more sustainable.

Third, it addresses some of the limitations of other renewable energy methods. Solar and wind power experience intermittent drops in energy production. Much like traditional liquid fuels, carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be stored long-term and used in accordance with demand.

“During periods of intermittency in renewable energy, you could utilize liquid, carbon-neutral synthetic fuels to provide electrical power,” said Atkins — though he acknowledges the round-trip efficiency (electricity to fuels and back to electricity) would be low.

lab equipment

In this mobile methanol synthesis trailer senior engineer Steve Atkins produces hydrogen and mixes it with carbon dioxide, part of the process of creating a carbon-neutral liquid fuel. Photo courtesy of Steve Atkins

Related to our transportation fleet, Jospe said, “We don’t need to move toward a totally electrified transportation fleet. We can use fuels, but the fuels need to become carbon neutral.”

Flying an airplane with an electric battery may not be a realistic option due to the reality of energy density (how much energy is contained within a unit).

“Batteries can’t pack as much electrons into the same amount of space,” Jospe said.

That means options like jet fuel are beneficial because they are lighter weight, and can power travel across further distances. Maybe it’s easiest to say that they offer users more bang for their buck.

But nonrenewable fuels, like jet fuel, also come with nasty consequences for the environment.

Promisingly, the energy density of carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be more advantageous than current batteries. They are also better than fossil fuels because they avoid adding new carbon to the atmosphere.

Arvind Ramachandran, a first-year environmental engineering doctoral student, is advancing research in converting captured carbon dioxide into fuels and chemicals under the supervision of Klaus Lackner, the director of CNCE and a professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“I think it is very clear that we have to figure out a way to become carbon negative or at least carbon neutral,” said Ramachandran, who earned his master’s degree in chemical engineering from Columbia University.

“Making sure that our mobile sources of carbon dioxide emissions, such as cars and airplanes, are running on carbon-neutral fuels represents a powerful way of achieving carbon neutrality,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E REFUEL program (short for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s Renewable Energy to Fuels through Utilization of Energy-dense Liquids) is currently offering funding opportunities to encourage innovations in liquid fuel technology that promise significant impacts.

Jospe thinks the air-capture technique fits the need by supporting the synthesis of fuels made from the air. CNCE is currently applying for ARPA-E funding to advance this effort.

Getting fuels from air is not the only option researchers at ASU are exploring. Others are advancing the production of biofuels from algae as part of a multi-university project supported by a recently awarded $2 million grant from the Bioenergy Technologies Office in the U.S. Department of Energy.

Additional niche applications of the air-capture technology would make it possible to use it to carbonate beverages, create high-value chemicals and sequester carbon in products such as graphene, plastics and carbon fiber.

These and many other products and systems require the use of carbon dioxide.

“Let’s get that carbon from air so we know it’s carbon neutral, rather than a source that doesn’t help us close the carbon cycle,” Jospe said.

CNCE researchers will promote and build on these ideas further when ASU hosts the Fuels From Air Conference on Sept. 28-30. The conference will bring researchers from around the world to discuss closing the carbon cycle, techniques in taking fuels from air and different ways to turn carbon dioxide into fuels.

Ramachandran, a budding specialist in this new and exciting field, said it best: “The answer to our search for a sustainable future is likely to involve a combination of technologies — and fuels from air will play an important role.”

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Pakistani engineering students battle energy crisis, gender roles

June 10, 2016

Two Pakistani women have important insights into their country’s colossal energy crisis.

Engineers Warda Mushtaq and Syeda Mehwish are master’s students that came to Arizona State University as part of the U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) program. Master’s students Warda Mushtaq (second from the right) and Syeda Mehwish (on the right) spent the spring semester at Arizona State University with a cohort of Pakistani students as part of the U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) program. In addition to advancing a research agenda in renewable energy, they toured Arizona sites such as the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Hassan Zulfiqar Download Full Image

Supportive parents, a hunger for scientific knowledge and progressive academic programs have fueled their successes in engineering, a field dominated by men in Pakistan and most parts of the world.

Their cohort, composed of 25 Pakistani engineering students, spent the spring semester learning new research techniques and tackling energy-related projects alongside ASU researchers.

Funded with an $18 million investment from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), USPCAS-E is a partnership between ASU and two leading Pakistani universities, the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad and the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Peshawar.

Renewables key to solving Pakistan’s energy crisis

Many engineers remember the device or question that first ignited their passion for finding scientific and technological solutions. For Mehwish, her interest began with a fascination concerning how televisions and radios worked.

Raised in southwestern Punjab, Pakistan, Mehwish said, “my earliest and fondest memories of childhood involved the wonders I could see and hear through these devices.”

For Mushtaq, her interest in engineering came later. Though born in Pakistan, she spent her childhood and teenage years in Saudi Arabia until she returned to her home country to pursue an undergraduate degree.

portrait of ASU engineering student

Warda Mushtaq conducted research in assistant professor Zachary Holman’s lab on advanced generation photovoltaics. Her research aspires to help solve the energy crisis in Pakistan with increasingly affordable solar power alternatives to fossil fuels. Photo by: Nick Narducci/ASU

“I have seen how posh the lifestyle of many communities in the Middle East is, compared to our lifestyle here in Pakistan,” she said.

She feels that the energy crisis facing Pakistan, in particular, is causing a majority of the societal and economic strain in Pakistan.

This energy crisis is deeply concerning, as the supply of energy is far less than the growing demand of the heat-wave prone country.

Due to management difficulties, increased power generation costs and underdeveloped infrastructure, power shortfalls approached 50 percent of national demand and the country experienced two major blackouts last year.

Reports also attributed more than 1,200 deaths last year to lethal heat waves, exasperated by rampant power outages.

An over-reliance on imported fossil fuels and untapped renewable energy sources have greatly contributed to the national crisis.

“I feel very passionate about using my skills to do something for my community, to contribute to resolving the energy crisis,” said Mushtaq.

At ASU, Mushtaq worked in assistant professor Zachary Holman’s lab on advanced generation photovoltaics. Her research aspires to help solve Pakistan’s energy crisis with increasingly affordable solar power alternatives to fossil fuels.

Solar power is one of the most feasible energy solutions in Pakistan, believes Mushtaq, “but it’s very expensive because all solar cells are imported.”

“My research is focused on the fabrication of low-cost photovoltaics…available to everyone in Pakistan, from our largest city to the smallest villages,” said Mushtaq.

Mehwish worked with associate research professor Govindasamy Tamizhmani in the Photovoltaic Reliability Lab on ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

“I am looking at making electricity cheaper for rural [communities] by proving the feasibility of standalone power plants in remote locations,” said Mehwish.

These alternative energy power plants could improve access and sustainability in rural communities in Pakistan, and across the world, if their feasibility can be proved.

The research contributions of engineers like Warda and Syeda aim to address this complex problem and are championed by leaders at their university.

“We believe that women can play an integral role in the socio-economic development of Pakistan and in resolving the energy crisis,” said Sonia Emaan, the communications and outreach specialist for USPCAS-E at NUST, the university Mehwish and Mushtaq attend.

“I believe that our women are giving their utmost in finding ways to perform with perfection … [including] working at the power plants, in the process industry, conducting field surveys, developing ways of improving existing processes at the oil and gas refineries, or designing and testing machinery for converting, transmitting and supplying useful energy to meet Pakistan’s needs for electricity,” added Emaan.

Time at ASU boosts research potential

Both Mehwish and Mushtaq decided to pursue a master’s degree in energy systems engineering at NUST, in part, because of the USPCAS-E program.

portrait of Seyda Mehwish, ASU engineering student

Syeda Mehwish spent the semester
working with associate research
professor Govindasamy Tamizhmani
in the Photovoltaic Reliability Lab
on the ASU Polytechnic campus.
She hopes to pursue a doctoral
degree next.
Photo courtesy: Syeda Mehwish

Mehwish enjoyed collaborating on her research at ASU, which she calls “a melting pot for people from all regions of the world.”

Warda describes her initial introduction to ASU as surprising.

“I think we were all a little shocked at how huge ASU is and just how much research goes on here,” she said.

Mushtaq says the USPCAS-E program jumpstarted her research career and has been “an amazing experience.”

She was so committed and excited about the opportunity USPCAS-E provided that she turned down a prestigious Fulbright doctoral program fellowship, offered by the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan, to spend the semester at ASU.

In addition to funding from USAID, Mehwish won the British Council’s Scholarship for Women in Energy in 2013.

Both Mushtaq and Mehwish have returned to Pakistan to continue their careers in advancing renewable energy.

“I’ve always thought the focus of research should be on how something is going to affect your community, what the real-world application is,” says Mushtaq. “I see a lot of that kind of purpose-driven research here [at ASU], and that’s something I look forward to applying back home.”

Both students aim to pursue a doctoral degree.

Navigating a male-dominated society

On track to graduate this summer, Mushtaq and Mehwish are among four female students in their class of about 30 master’s students at NUST.

“But that ratio is increasing,” said Mushtaq, and NUST is focused on bringing more women into technological fields through recruitment efforts and the addition of specific facilities for female students, including living accommodations, a medical center, a gym and increased transportation offerings.

Total female enrollment at NUST is currently 30 percent, but the environmental science and engineering programs are approaching almost 50 percent.

“By being the backbone of the society and having a dominant representation in the population of Pakistan, [women] can provide a ripple effect with their understanding of engineering programs and the dissemination of their learning and practical application to the larger part of the community,” said Emaan.

Though many supportive teachers and parents encouraged Warda and Syeda on their engineering journeys, they acknowledge that many women face pressures that can limit career progression.

According to Mehwish, “society norms in Pakistan usually dictate that women and girls are expected to run a household instead of going after a dream job.”

“It was only through the constant support and belief of my family that I have reached where I am today,” she said.

At various times throughout her academic journey, Warda says she has encountered “inappropriate attitudes and comments” due to the unfortunate belief that women shouldn’t pursue careers.

“When I excel and do better than most of my male colleagues, I gain respect and observe a change in attitudes. This has given me confidence that the only way we can gain respect in this male-dominated society is by pursuing our dreams and excelling in them,” said Mushtaq.

“Society will not always be your best friend, especially as a woman, so you must be firm in your beliefs and stay true to your passion,” said Mehwish.

While championing the “sanctity and piousness” of her own culture, Mehwish admits it can be a struggle when she feels judged for her desires to interact with people from different religions, cultures and parts of the world.

Despite any criticism, Mehwish champions becoming a “global citizen.”

“Only when we understand and listen to the problems faced by people from all corners, can we completely eradicate the petty things dividing us, the simple things distracting us and the radical things holding us,” she said.

Mushtaq added, “I look up to every career-minded woman who is determined to be strong, independent and brave enough to not worry about what the society thinks she should or shouldn’t do. From a Pakistani women who drives an auto to support her family to the Pakistani scientist in the team who discovered gravitational waves, and everyone in between, all these women — their strength inspires me.”

Mehwish said her time at ASU helped her to gain confidence in her research focus and gave her the zeal to “bring Pakistan to the forefront of academic research, especially for young girls who aspire to be researchers and scientists.”

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Can 50 percent of the power grid come from renewables?

ASU engineers say better forecasting, management is key

May 23, 2016

Renewable energy is becoming increasingly cost competitive in comparison to traditional fossil-fuel generation. So why is its impact on the power grid limited?

The fact is, renewable-energy sources are inherently variable and uncertain. The wind blows, and then it stops. The sun shines, and then a cloud comes. Faculty members in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering are using a $3 million Department of Energy (DOE) grant to accelerate technological advancements that improve the coordination between renewables and other resources within the power grid. Photo: Faculty members in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering are using a $3 million Department of Energy grant to accelerate technological advancements that improve the coordination between renewables and other resources within the power grid. Photo by Shutterstock.com

Fossil-fuel generators are spared this fluctuation, so the ebbs and flows of renewable generation must be managed differently to remain effective within the power grid.

Arizona State University professors Junshan Zhang, Kory Hedman, Vijay Vittal and Anna Scaglione are utilizing a $3 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to accelerate technological advancements that improve the coordination between renewables and other resources within the power grid.

The research team, all faculty members in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is collaborating with Sandia National Laboratories, Nexant Inc. and PJM Interconnection.

What is their guiding philosophy?

You can’t stop the clouds from coming, but you can improve the design of the power grid so that it is better equipped to manage renewable energy and offset the use of fossil fuels.

“It goes against the purpose of integrating clean, renewable resources in the power grid if their fluctuations in power generation must be compensated for by excessive ramping of fossil-fuel units,” said Hedman.

“To depend more on the electric power coming from renewable sources, rather than fossil-fuel generators, we will need to change how the power grid works,” said Scaglione.

Addressing limitations in the power grid

The fluctuating output of renewables makes it difficult for a power-grid operator to forecast how much energy to expect from them.

Because of this, operators generally limit the expected supply of renewably energy to the power grid to satisfy established operating limits.

“In certain cases this could result in renewable energy going unused,” said Vittal, which ends up costing the end consumer more due to the operating cost of expensive emergency reserves.

The ASU grant was one of 12 grants awarded through DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s (ARPA-E) Network Optimized Distributed Energy Systems (NODES) program.

Through improved technology and discoveries, the NODES program aims to achieve 50 percent or more of power grid usage from renewable-energy resources.

“The current design of the grid is prepared for the worst-case scenario, so it is a grand challenge for the grid to handle a high renewable penetration level,” said Zhang, electrical engineering professor and principal investigator for the project.

For the ASU team, the goal of their NODES project, titled Stochastic Optimal Power Flow (OPF), is to create a suite of forecasting algorithms to better account for renewable sources at all levels of the power-grid operation process.

“By taking into account the uncertainty associated with renewable resources, the project takes important strides in overcoming key obstacles in integrating renewable resources,” said Vittal.

“This is one of very few efforts focusing on the integration of this kind of variable power into the grid,” said Zhang.

The project focuses on three key areas: better forecasting of the power generation of renewables, real-time management at the grid level, and integrating power generated by consumers into the grid.

The holistic nature of this project, having never been attempted before, promises the unique benefits of a disruptive technological advancement — making it possible to achieve 50 percent renewable-resource penetration in the national power grid.

Improved forecasting capacities and real-time management

Professor Junshan Zhang, principal investigator of the grant, is creating a suite of forecasting algorithms to better account for renewable sources at all levels of the power grid operation process. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Professor Junshan Zhang, principal
investigator of the grant, is creating
a suite of forecasting algorithms
to better account for renewable
sources at all levels of the
power-grid operation process.

Zhang and Vittal have developed a suite of data analytics-based forecasting algorithms for wind and solar generation that improve the forecast accuracy of distributed energy resources (DERs).

DERs, which include renewable technologies, are smaller power sources that can be aggregated to meet power demand.

Since the implementation of DERs into the power grid relies on aggregation, accurate forecasting is paramount.

Zhang anticipates an improvement of more than 20 percent in the forecasting accuracy as a result of his improved algorithms.

By forecasting a statistical distribution of renewable power at a future time, these distributional forecasts better handle uncertainty than the existing “point forecast” paradigm, which gives only the value of renewable power at a future instance in time.

Distributional forecasts enable system operators to maintain an acceptable level of risk, reducing an otherwise wasted system energy reserve.

“More accurate forecasts of DERs give systems operators more flexibility” in determining an optimal output that still meets the economic, operational and system constraints, explained Zhang.

Another component of the project, led by Hedman, is the addition of real-time management at the grid level.

In addition to unprecedented visibility, flexibility and predictability, new stochastic algorithms enable real-time coordination between the DERs, the demand response and distributed storage in a comprehensive approach.

Hedman describes this effort as developing “a standalone tool that advises grid operators on various ancillary services needed to mitigate renewable-resource fluctuations in real-time.”

“By doing so, we are able to avoid the market pricing barriers that exist for stochastic programming, and concurrently enable Stochastic OPF to have an impact,” said Zhang.

Rethinking electric power management

While Zhang, Vittal and Hedman are focused on equipping power-systems operations to handle larger degrees of uncertainty, Scaglione is looking at consumption in the power grid more broadly.

She points out the problem that the supply and demand of electric power must be continuously balanced. For Scaglione, this constraint is as significant as the focus on using energy efficiently.

“As users, we are unaware today of the congestion or [renewable production] shortages that may exist at every instant of time on the grid,” she said.

“Not only must operators manage the uncertainty and variability of renewable resources, but they must also be mindful of congestion limiting the transport of electric power,” said Hedman.

According to the research team, smart energy usage is not necessarily a matter of consuming less power, but rather shifting the use of power to when it is available.

This could include controlling the energy consumption of flexible appliances, such as heating and air-conditioning systems, whose electric power can be shifted in time without people taking notice.

Currently, our air-conditioning systems, for example, turn on and off to maintain customer satisfaction without taking into account fluctuations in the power grid.

“But the consumption of these appliances could be changed to not focus on minimizing energy, but on alleviating congestion in the grid,” said Scaglione. This congestion, or imbalance between appliances and generated power, could be relieved by deferring consumption, rather than turning up or down fossil-fuel generators.

Another example is charging an electric car.

The car needs to be charged when the user intends to drive it, but the charging doesn’t have to start the moment it is plugged into the charger in many cases.

“The hours when our appliances are drawing power can shift or be interrupted without any inconvenience to better take advantage of periods of renewable-energy abundance in the electric grid,” said Scaglione.

Adding electric storage to homes and buildings could also help consumers to better use power when it is available — though an affordable solution to adding electric storage options to households is a reality not yet reached.

“The technological solutions may already exist — the challenge is to make them grid-friendly,” said Scaglione.

To compensate for shortages or surpluses of renewable generation would require power-systems operations to manage thousands to millions of subsystems — electric batteries, air-conditioners, smart lighting, electric vehicle charging and more — instead of a relatively small fleet of large fossil-fuel generators.

Scaglione is developing computational models and interfaces that aim to harmonize the multitude of subsystems within a collective system, allowing better management and understanding of the global state of production in the grid.

“My research envisions how we can treat these subsystems as a large reservoir that can be controlled to follow the ebbs and flows of renewable generation, while delivering the desired performance to the consumer,” she added.

The research team includes professors (from left to right) Junshan Zhang, Anna Scaglione, Vijay Vittal and Kory Hedman.

The research team includes ASU professors (from left) Junshan Zhang, Anna Scaglione, Vijay Vittal and Kory Hedman.

Economic and environmental benefits

The team is on track to get more renewable energy into the power grid, and subsequently into people’s homes, businesses and devices, while maintaining reliability and resiliency.

These improvements could dramatically offset thermal generation and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

This is due to the fact that the grid “will use significantly more renewable resources without posing challenges in the reliability of the power delivery service,” said Scaglione.

“With the newly imposed restrictions by the Environmental Protection Agency, in regards to clean energy, it is imperative to increase the penetration of renewable resources in the grid,” said Vittal.

Economically, improved management could also reduce the amount of power reserves on standby in case of unforeseen intermittency, valued at saving $3.3 billion per year according to ARPA-E.

The effect of this new technology could be game changing, even disruptive, in ushering in a new era in the electric-power industry.

“It will open the floodgates to integration of renewables and other DERs with the knowledge that the full potential of these renewable resources could soon be realized,” said Zhang.

Written by Rose Serago with contributions from Gary Campbell

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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Solar's outlook just got a little bit brighter

ASU engineers' work brings solar panels step closer to cheaper, more accessible.
May 17, 2016

New inventions from ASU researchers may lead to cheaper, more efficient solar power

Companies making solar panels have faced the same choice for decades. Their sun-soaking panels could be efficient or cheap, but not both.

Time to start erasing that rule.

Researchers within the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering have wedded two types of solar technologies, putting solar panels a step closer to being cheaper and more accessible.

Here’s the challenge researchers faced: solar panels made with silicon are expensive but more efficient than the cheaper, thin film solar cells, which are made with cadmium telluride.

The ASU team, led by electrical engineering professor Yong-Hang Zhang and assistant professor Zachary Holman, figured out how to add a little silicon to the thin film cells, combining the qualities of each type of panel.

Their invention broke an efficiency record for thin film cells and achieved the highest open-circuit voltage ever recorded for that type of cell. Their results were published this week in a paper in the journal Nature Energy.

Overcoming obstacles

Open-circuit voltage measures the potential for a solar cell to pump electricity around a circuit. High voltage is created when light is absorbed in a solar cell, exciting electrons by shaking them off their atoms. The electrons then build up on one side of the solar cell, like at the negative terminal of a battery.

ASU electrical engineering professor Yong-Hang Zhang

Engineering a solar cell with high voltage is challenging because the excited electrons can be lost within microseconds or even nanoseconds of sunlight hitting a solar cell. Thus, a goal of solar cell research is to extract the electricity before it dissipates, which is generally accomplished by adding conductive contacts to the top and bottom of a solar cell, according to Zhang (pictured left), who also is an associate dean for research in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“The traditional contacts are made through introducing impurities in the solar cell absorbing layer,” said Zhang, “which can degrade the device performance dramatically.”

Zhang, Holman and their research teams added a separate contact layer of low-cost amorphous silicon instead of an impurity. In doing so, they created a solar cell with a voltage of 1.1 volt, an unimaginable feat even one year ago.

“Essentially, we’ve created a solar cell that allows for the maximum number of electrons possible to build up before extracting them quickly and efficiently out the ‘smart’ contact,” Zhang said.

The cells not only reached high voltage but also a 17 percent efficiency, breaking a record of 15.2 percent for thin film solar cells. While other types of solar cells, such as silicon, boast a best efficiency rating of around 25 percent, such a dramatic improvement in thin film efficiency shows promise for widespread use.

Zhang’s next goal is 20 percent efficiency or more.

Impact on industry

Materials science doctoral student Calli Campbell fabricates solar cells.

Materials science doctoral student Calli Campbell uses a molecular beam epitaxy machine to fabricate the solar cell wafers in Yong-Hang Zhang’s lab. Photo courtesy of Yong-Hang Zhang/ASU

“The important thing is that this material system has been proven cost effective, but (until now) never efficient enough in terms of energy production to take over the solar market,” said Zhang. “Many times with a paper such as this, the findings are either scientifically interesting or commercially applicable, but not both. However, these results are.”

While silicon solar panels dominate the market, there are about 10 gigawatts — enough to power 2.5 million homes — of thin film solar panels in use worldwide today. First Solar in Tempe, Arizona, is the world’s largest manufacturer of thin-film solar cells.

“These latest results further confirm our long-standing conviction that CdTe (cadmium telluride) is an ideal material choice for photovoltaic application,” said Markus Gloeckler, vice president of advanced research at First Solar. “Reaching an open-circuit voltage of 1.1 volts is a milestone for the technology and provides confidence that thin-film CdTe has not reached its limits.”

The first step in an ongoing collaboration

The success grew out of an unanticipated alliance between Zhang and Holman’s separate teams.

ASU assistant professor Zachary Holman

“It’s a unique collaboration, and one that happened in the best way possible: through student initiative,” said Holman (pictured left). “One of Yong’s students reached out to one of my post-docs, and things took off from there.”

Though Zhang and his group initially conceived the underlying concept of these breakthrough solar cells, it took them nearly two years to improve the materials needed to fabricate them. They also called upon Holman’s expertise in silicon solar cells to marry two very different semiconductors to achieve these unique and efficient properties.

Zhang and Holman look to use their respective expertise to collaborate in the future as well.

“We’re exploring the possibility of developing a tandem solar cell,” Holman said, “basically two complimentary solar cells that would stack on top of one another, further boosting efficiency.”

The two teams plan to continue collaboration and are slated to present their recent results at the upcoming Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Photovoltaic Specialists Conference in Portland, Oregon, in June.

The research was mainly supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium (BAPVC), a collaboration between universities, industry and government dedicated to improving photovoltaic technology, jointly led by Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. Additional funding was supplied through Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST), one of the four National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Centers at the Fulton Schools at ASU.

Initial support for this research came from the Science Foundation Arizona in 2007, and following funding from the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Office of Scientific Research have paved the way to enabled many of these new ideas developed in the past 10 years, according to Zhang.

Top photo: A novel approach to a materials science challenge has birthed a record-breaking monocrystalline cadmium telluride solar cell, which boasts the highest voltage ever for its type of cell. Photo by Cheng-Ying Tsai/ASU

Pete Zrioka

Managing editor , Knowledge Enterprise


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ASU’s energy-systems expertise and Decision Theater will help shape Mexico’s power grid

ASU partners to help Mexico modernize its energy grid.
April 6, 2016

3-year project will explore interconnections with the U.S., the use of micro-grids, and ways to bring renewable energy into grid

Arizona State University’s leadership in energy systems is stretching beyond the border into Mexico. ASU was recently named a participant in a new grant that will help Mexico modernize its energy grid as well as make it more connected to the U.S.

The three-year, $26 million grant awarded to the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Tec de Monterrey) by Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) and its Secretary of Energy, is designed to address the energy economy in Mexico. It will help build infrastructure, perform research and conduct educational activities, preparing Mexico for its energy future.

The grant was announced as part of the launching of the Binational Laboratory for Intelligent Management of Energy Sustainability and Technology Education at Tec de Monterrey’s Mexico City campus on April 6.

Mexico is in the midst of privatizing and updating its energy industry — fossil fuel and electrical generation industries — at a time when it is moving toward using more renewables. The grant will help the country explore its energy options and how it can connect with its neighbors.

ASU is receiving $1.5 million of the grant and will provide energy economic modeling expertise via the Decision Theater. In addition, ASU will apply its renowned expertise in power engineering to the project. The University of California, Berkeley is also involved in the project.

ASU’s power engineering group will help Mexican authorities look into updating its power grid to include interconnections between it and the U.S., explore the use of micro-grids, look for energy efficiencies and bring renewable-energy sources into the grid, said Stephen Goodnick, who will lead the ASU involvement in the project. Goodnick is a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, deputy director of ASU LightWorks and a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

“These are the areas our power systems engineering people, who lead one of the top power systems research consortiums in the country, excel.”
— ASU professor Stephen Goodnick

Goodnick said the research portion of the project will focus on current issues with the energy infrastructure in Mexico.

“There is research being done collaboratively with ASU in cross-border transmission,” he said. “Right now, there are very few interconnections between the U.S. and Mexico, so the project will look at what the issues and technical problems are associated with cross-border transmission.”

Goodnick said another part of the project will be looking into the integration of renewable-energy technologies, such as solar and wind, into the grid system. Renewable-energy sources are variable energy sources that cannot be dispatched like fossil-fuel-based sources, so the renewable systems need energy storage capacity to provide a steady amount of power on demand.

The project also will look into development of micro-grids, which can be deployed in remote areas of the country where there presently isn’t transmission infrastructure.

“These are the areas our power systems engineering people, who lead one of the top power systems research consortiums in the country, excel,” Goodnick said of the Power Systems Engineering Research Center (PSERC), which is led by Vijay Vittal, the Ira A. Fulton chair of Electrical Engineering.

He added the project will bring a cohort of PhD students from Tec de Monterrey to ASU to work on the research projects in coordination with professors in the U.S. and Mexico.

Goodnick added the project will take advantage of a Decision Theater that has been built at Tec de Monterrey’s Mexico City campus and will draw on ASU expertise in energy markets modeling to help assess the costs of various energy scenarios.

Mexico’s Decision Theater will display models on the impact of various energy investments on socio-economic variables such as GDP, job creation and tax revenue. Stakeholders can then readily use the tools to better understand the implications for their decisions and collaborate toward a common future. Plans are to build additional Decision Theaters in Mexico as part of the project.

“Decision Theater will help develop scenarios on Mexico’s future like should they add more renewables, more nuclear, more natural-gas plants,” Goodnick said. “This is very important for Mexico because they have a lot of decisions they need to make in the short term.”

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


SenSIP striving to make solar energy systems more sustainable

March 28, 2016

Making photovoltaic cells more effective is critical to unleashing the potential of solar energy to become a major source of clean renewable power.

The goal is to produce cells capable of converting more captured sunlight into electricity. But even with recent advances in conversion efficiency, another challenge remains: developing complementary technologies for solar energy generating systems that will help enable photovoltaic cells to perform at their peak. Leaders of SenSIP research center project at ASU Rearch Park solar facility An array of photovoltaic modules built recently at the Macro Technology Works facility at the Arizona State University Research Park will be used to develop systems designed to boost the productivity and reliability of solar power generating stations. Pictured at the site are leading members of the project team. From left to right: Devarajan Srinivasan, Jeffery Frye, Andreas Spanias, and Cihan Tepedelenlioglu. Photo by: Nicholas Narducci/ASU Download Full Image

To maximize energy generation, arrays of photovoltaic modules must be equipped to react to situations that threaten to hinder their productivity.

That’s where sensor and signal information processing technologies promise to play a big role.

Arizona State University engineers Andreas Spanias and Cihan Tepedelenlioglu are working to automate monitoring and operation of solar energy facilities in ways that provide optimal efficiency.

Self-diagnosis and predesigned remedies

Spanias, a professor of electrical engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, is the founding director of the Sensor, Signal and Information Processing (SenSIP) research center. Tepedelenlioglu is an associate professor of electrical engineering in the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

They are devising a system that can act on its own to change the configurations of electrical connections within networks of photovoltaic modules. That ability will make generating facilities capable of quickly overcoming technical difficulties and maintaining operations with little loss of solar power conversion activity.

More than that, they want to integrate technologies into the system that will detect, diagnose and remedy electrical and mechanical glitches that would hamper a power station’s output.

“The idea is to come up with the theoretical foundations for producing algorithms for fault detection and repair, for realigning connections among arrays of solar panels,” Spanias explained,” and to then embed these algorithms into operating systems so that they are ready to respond to problems with predesigned solutions.

“We think we can show that this will increase power output by as much as five percent, which is a lot of power when you scale things up to the size of typical utility company operations,” he said.

A system of embedded autonomous controls

With $700,000 from two National Science Foundation grants — along with support from some of SenSIP’s key industry partners — the center is completing construction at the ASU Research Park in Tempe of an experimental facility with 104 photovoltaic modules equipped with prototype “smart” monitoring devices.

At the park’s Macro Technology Works, ASU researchers will test technologies and designs for a system they hope will make solar energy generating stations significantly more robust and sustainable.

Tepedelenlioglu is concentrating on enabling the system to be monitored and controlled remotely from just about anywhere.

“Maintaining solar panel arrays in isolated locations has traditionally been a limitation of solar energy facilities,” Tepedelenlioglu said. “This system would allow utility companies to monitor each individual module and to respond to problems from far away, eliminating the need for manual repairs with people on site.”

Accomplishing that will entail combining and integrating the capabilities of sensors, signal information processors and computer programming to embed an extensive communications network into the system.

Communications network for remote monitoring

Two SenSIP industry partners, Japan-based Energy Wireless and Tempe-based Poundra, are providing photovoltaic modules, along with sensor, transmitter, transceiver and signal devices for the experimental facility.

Sprint Communications installed a dedicated LTE system in SenSIP’s lab. This networking technology for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals will be used to provide additional mobile data links as the solar energy system monitoring project progresses.

The network will need to link internal communications between the devices that monitor, control and provide data on the facility’s electrical and mechanical components with the technologies that enable offsite supervision and transmit external communications and controls back to the system.

“Sensors on each and every solar panel will communicate to a central monitoring station to report what each panel is producing, and reveal if there is something keeping the facility from functioning at its full capacity,” Tepedelenlioglu said.

group standing in front of a solar panel

Students who are on the research team for the ASU Sensor, Signal and Information Processing research center project include (from left to right) electrical engineering doctoral students Henry Braun and Xue “Sophia” Zhang, electrical engineering undergraduate David Ramirez, biomedical science and genetics undergraduate Stefani Gjorcheska and electrical engineering doctoral student Jongmin Lee. Photographer: Nicholas Narducci/ASU

Overcoming technological hurdles

Through the communications matrix Tepedelenlioglu plans to develop, the monitoring data can be accessed wirelessly through a mobile phone or an Internet connection.

Designing and operating such a network can achieve technological progress that would also improve monitoring of other alternative energy facilities, as well as monitoring of infrastructure systems and environmental conditions.

“We want to demonstrate that sensor and signal processing has a major role to play in making solar energy advances, and that it can be adapted to help optimize the performance of many other types of similar facilities,” he said.

The project potentially offers much more than enhanced technical efficiency, Spanias said.

“With an advanced automated system that enables remote communications about the status of every facet of such a facility, and that detects, analyzes and fixes problems to maintain full production, you are going to be able to operate more economically,” Spanias said. “That helps overcome a big hurdle for solar energy.”

Boosting viability of solar energy systems

Raja Ayyanar, an ASU associate professor of electrical engineering, will aid the cause by helping to design and engineer inverter operation strategies to limit changes in power output due to system faults and periods when the photovoltaic array is shaded from sunlight, and to enable the facility to generate power in a form that is usable by the electrical grid.

Devarajan Srinivasan, an ASU alumnus, a faculty associate in the Fulton Schools of Engineering and one of the owners of Poundra, has been a key collaborator on the project since its beginning. He helped to design the experimental facility at the ASU Research Park.

Poundra works with energy industry clients to help them adapt new technologies and systems to improve the performance of their solar power generation facilities.

The company is hopeful the SenSIP project will produce technological advances “that improve not only the ability to monitor the overall health of the system in real time, but also to pinpoint where problems are arising and to predict its long-term performance over five to 10 years,” says Srinivasan, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at ASU.

That achievement would be a major boost to the viability of the solar power industry throughout the world, he said.

Contributions from industry collaborators

The facility’s “smart” monitoring electronics  — including sensors, relays and communications modules — were designed by SenSIP collaborators Shinji Koizumi, Shin Takada and Yoshitaka Morimoto, who are with the Japanese companies Energy Wireless and Applied Core Technologies, which have been involved with the project since 2012.

Morimoto says the concept for remote module-based monitoring was developed in response to the extensive damage done to nuclear power facilities when a massive tsunami hit Japan in 2011.  In the aftermath, the Japanese government made plans to develop remotely monitored and controlled solar energy farms to provide an alternative to nuclear power for the areas hit by the tsunami. The government gave Energy Wireless support to develop the sensor and electronics for the “smart” monitoring devices.

Macro Technology Works facilities director Jeffery Frye has been instrumental in paving the way for the building and implementation of the photovoltaic array. He was in charge of site logistics and construction coordination, as well as securing the necessary licensing and permits to operate the facility.

Frye expects to reap results from the system that could aid ASU in its quest to use solar energy to provide a greater percentage of the power needed for the university’s campuses.

solar panel

The experimental facility’s array of more than 100 photovoltaic modules will be equipped with advanced “smart” monitoring devices and other technologies to enable the system to detect, diagnose and remedy electrical and mechanical glitches that would hamper a solar power station’s output. Photographer: Nicholas Narducci/ASU

Potential breakthroughs attract interest

Spanias and Tepedelenlioglu are co-authors of a paper soon to be published in the research journal Sustainable Energy, Grids and Networks. Their article reports on procedures they have devised for optimizing the electrical configurations of photovoltaic arrays under a variety of operating conditions.

The paper will provide details on an array reconfiguration algorithm they say would enable a generating facility to reliably produce more power than facilities operating without their system for realigning electrical connections among photovoltaic modules.

SenSIP’s efforts have demonstrated sufficient promise to capture the interest of Sethuraman Panchanathan, ASU’s chief research and innovation officer and executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development (KED), well as William Petusky, the Associate Vice President of Science, Technology and Engineering at KED, and Yong-Hang Zhang, the associate dean of research in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. They, along with Stephen Phillips, director of the School of Electrical, Computing and Energy Engineering, have provided logistical and financial support for the 18-kilowatt solar energy monitoring facility.

Students benefiting from the project

ASU students are also benefiting from the project. Several engineering graduate students have roles as research assistants, and educational computer software will be developed for use in teaching undergraduates the basics of the science and engineering concepts involved in the project.

In addition to the two National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants, the NSF awarded SenSIP a Research Experience for Veterans supplement that has supported ASU undergraduate student and military veteran David Ramirez, who has already co-authored research paper and reports on solar monitoring project.

Outlook for broadening scope of efforts

Spanias and Tepedelenlioglu foresee possibilities of expanding their research endeavors in the area of green energy development, aided by SenSIP’s standing as a National Science Foundation Industry/University Collaborative Research Center that is making notable strides in its research mission.

Along with the companies contributing to the solar project, the center now counts among its primary industry partners NXP (formerly Freescale), Intel, Raytheon Missile Systems and Interactive Flow Studies, as well as associate members-at-large that include LG Electronics, Lockheed Martin, National Instruments, Qualcomm, General Dynamics, Paceco and Mitsui.

Those companies’ varied interests may lead to further support for SenSIP’s efforts to apply its sensor and signal information processing expertise to pursuing improvements in energy technologies and systems used in diverse industrial and commercial enterprises.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Powering up

March 17, 2016

ASU a partner in Red Rock solar power plant, one of the largest in Arizona, furthering the university’s role as a leader in sustainability

Construction workers this month are starting to turn several hundred acres of scrub desert near Red Rock, Arizona, into what will be gleaming fields of solar panels, one of the largest solar power plants in the state — with Arizona State University as a partner.

The project marks another milestone in ASU’s steep and aggressive rise in harnessing the sun’s power since 2004, when ASU first installed a Tempe campus solar array on top of a parking garage on Tyler Street.

Over a dozen years, ASU expanded its renewable-energy capacity multiple times over, debuting parking-lot “parasols,” innovative solar tracking systems, and solar panels that shade the fans at ballgames. ASU and its solar partners operate nearly 90 solar installations across university campuses, which total more than 24 MWdcMWdc stands for megawatts in the form of direct current., one of the largest on-campus university solar-energy portfolios in the nation.

In the Red Rock project, ASU is partnering with the power company APS and online-payment pioneer PayPal to build the plant. Through separate agreements with ASU and PayPal, APS will build, own and operate the plant. ASU and PayPal will purchase power from the plant.

As a result, this project will push the university past a new milestone of 50 MWdc of renewable-energy capacity. ASU will add an additional 150 percent of renewable energy (65,000 MWh, or megawatt hours) per year above and beyond its existing portfolio, furthering the university’s role as a recognized global leader in sustainability.

Solar panels atop Wells Fargo Arena.

Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe is just one of many ASU buildings and parking areas sporting solar panels. There are nearly 90 solar installations across the university.

The benefits, though, extend much further than ASU’s metropolitan campuses, explained Morgan R. Olsen, ASU executive vice president, treasurer and chief financial officer. He said the project:

• Brings new solar-energy capacity to Arizona.

• Provides local construction jobs to Arizona citizens.

• Reduces ASU’s net greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Part of our charter mission is to take responsibility for the social, economic and overall health of the community around us,” Olsen said. “This endeavor also moves us toward ASU's commitment to become climate neutral for all activities except transportation by 2025, and for all activities by 2035.”

ASU’s leadership in sustainability spans research, education and practice, as home to the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the School of Sustainability, as well as the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar TechnologiesQESST, or the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center, is part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Engineering Research Center, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

ASU’s acceleration in capturing the sun’s rays includes:

• A parking lot next to Sun Devil Stadium was equipped in 2011 with the first deployment of PowerParasols, an elevated solar system that also shades parked cars and creates event space.

• In 2013, ASU installed a solar-panel canopy over seating at Farrington Stadium, one of nine athletic facilities with solar panels, the most in the nation at the time.

• That same year, ASU’s Polytechnic campus debuted the first use of a new SunPower C7 Tracker technology that concentrates the sun’s power seven times and converts it to electricity.

The Red Rock plant is expected to be online at the end of the year.

Top photo courtesy of SunPower Corporation.


ASU professor’s ‘solar exposure’

Event draws a VIP crowd to an ASU engineer and his new technology

March 16, 2016

Taking part in a high-visibility event near the nation’s capital means you need to be on your toes. Just ask Zak Holman, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He was displaying a technology at the recent ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit near Washington, D.C., when Al Gore, the former vice president, walked up and asked him about the PVMirror Holman had invented.

“I was totally impressed with Al Gore’s technical knowledge,” Holman said of the encounter. “I made it about 15 seconds into my usual spiel before he interrupted me with a string of questions about the technology and its marketability.” ASU assistant professor Zak Holman explains his PVMirror invention to former Vice President Al Gore at the recent ARPA-E summit. Download Full Image

“He wanted to know if there was a thin film in PVMirrors that does the spectrum splitting (answer is yes), what it is made from (polymers), what fraction of the electricity is dispatchable (50 percent), what the projected efficiency and cost increases are compared to conventional concentrating solar thermal power systems (40 percent and 10 percent, respectively), and how long it would take to realize those projected values — all good questions,” Holman said.

Holman’s PVMirrors were part of a LightWorks display put on by Arizona State University for the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy) event. At the summit, 14 ASU professors, staff and students took part in the three-day event. They had the chance to show off their work to several people, including dignitaries.

Other energy technologies included in the ASU/LightWorks booth were Indium-Gallium-Nitride thermionic topping solar cells that provide energy on demand at low cost; an electrochemical CO2 capture-and-release device; a carbon capture device; and diamond power transistors enabled by phosphorous-doped diamond.

But Holman’s PVMirrors stole the show.

“Zak was certainly a rock star at the summit this year, his booth (part of the larger ASU LightWorks booth) was a featured booth for the VIP tours organized by ARPA-E,” said Steve Goodnick, a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering and also an exhibitor at the event. “They also showed his project in a video between sessions at the plenary.”

Jim Yong Kim, head of the World Bank

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, tells ASU engineer Zak Holman that there will be a place in the world for his solar technology. Photo courtesy of Leon Meng

Holman explained his invention’s basic operation.

“PVMirrors are a technology intended to lower the cost and increase the value of solar energy,” Holman said. “Our approach to lowering the cost is to maximize the efficiency with which sunlight is converted to electricity. PVMirrors do this by splitting the solar spectrum, illuminating photovoltaic cells with only the colors of light that the cells ‘like’ (near-infrared), and using the rest of the colors (visible and infrared light) to generate heat, which can be converted to electricity at a later time using a steam turbine. This increases the overall efficiency of the system, and it enables solar energy at night.”

He added that he was inspired by another visitor to his booth.

“Jim Yong Kim (head of the World Bank) was very interested and supportive of the technology, and made a point to let me know that the world needed to keep pushing clean-energy technologies, and that there would be money to support them,” Holman said.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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The question of renewable energy on tribal lands

Understanding the culture is key to effecting energy change.
Connection to land and to tradition can alter Navajos' view of energy plans.
February 23, 2016

Low adoption rate in Navajo Nation due to cultural and societal differences, according to ASU professor's study

The Navajo Nation has one of the most valuable mineral resources among any Native American reservation in the United States, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Add renewable-energy sources to that: winds scudding across mesas and sunlight baking the high deserts on the 27,000-square-mile reservation.

Yet thousands live without power or water, in a place where 43 percent fall below the poverty line and unemployment stands at 42 percent, according to the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development.

Why is renewable-energy adoption so low, especially for a tribe with the greatest renewable-energy potential in the United States?

A recent study spearheaded by an Arizona State University professor asked that question.

Cultural and societal differences are a huge part of the answer, according to “A Paradox of Plenty: Renewable Energy on Navajo Nation Lands,” published late last month in the journal Society and Natural Resources.

“There are 220,000 Navajo clustered in a few places like Kayenta, and then they’re just scattered all over the place, often without power or water,” said Martin Pasqualetti, lead author of the study and professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They have coal, but the whole place is bathed in sunlight, just like we are here. Why is it there’s so much poverty, unemployment, low education rates, and alcoholism on the reservation when they have one of the best natural resources in the world right there? What is the answer to that question? We started to answer that.”

Pasqualetti has a catchphrase he likes that sums up the problem: “Energy is a social issue with a technical component, rather than the other way around.”

“It’s not good enough to say ‘This is a good idea,’ ” he said. “You can fail, and one reason you can fail is you didn’t pay enough attention to the societal aspects of the problem.”

Understanding the culture is key, said Pasqualetti, who is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

Monument Valley

Making energy plans for the
Navajo Nation's future is
complicated by what has
happened in the past.

Photos by Enrico Nunziati
and (top) Cristiano Galbiati/

“You can’t just parachute all this renewable stuff in there and say, ‘There you go,’ ” he said. “That’s true in every culture, not just the Navajo.”

Long effects of colonization

Victor Begay, academic community liaison director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU, is from the Shiprock area of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. He said most of the challenges the study talked about fall under the umbrella of colonization. To Native people, colonization is yet another white man showing up with yet another thing to “improve” their lives.

“This goes back to the first relationships between Native and non-Native people,” Begay said. “The way that Native people approach these relationships is varied because the history has been so disjointed. It’s been conceived under biased notions. After a while you really begin to distrust people who have continually burned you and burned you and burned you. ...

“That’s what makes it so complex, because of everything that happened in the past. It influences what people think today, which a lot of times non-Native communities don’t understand. They think, ‘I’m here just for the betterment of the tribe.’ Well, 20 years ago some corporation said the same thing, so pardon me if I don’t really believe what you’re saying.”

Distrust among the Navajo has deep roots, ranging from Spanish friars waving crosses hundreds of years ago to uranium mining in the 1950s, which caused cancer in thousands of Navajo miners who were not told of the hazards. Billboards still dot the reservation urging sick former miners to apply for benefits.

“We’re going to clear out your aquifers, but we’re not going to tell you that,” Begay said. “We’re going pay you $50 a ton of uranium ore. All of those things just make you weary of interactions. ... It’s this mentality that has been so deeply ingrained in Native communities that even though there’s a certain degree of independence, autonomy, sovereignty, it’s hard for Native communities to see outside of that. I think a lot of it has to do with that.”

While renewable energy isn’t dirty, doesn’t pollute and exists in abundance, those aspects don’t necessarily mean the Navajo are going to jump on it, Pasqualetti said. He cited the Hopi — who live in the middle of the Navajo reservation — refusing a wind farm because it would have been located on a spiritual site. The Hopi also refused to renew a coal mining lease because water use was drawing down springs and seeps they had used for centuries.

“The energy company just didn’t get it,” Pasqualetti said.

Some communities on the Navajo reservation don’t have electricity or running water. While a non-Native might say that’s terrible in 2016, the people in those communities don’t necessarily want it, Begay said.

“From a Navajo perspective, some communities that for whatever reason don’t want it, whether it’s maintaining a particular lifestyle or it’s maintaining a particular connection to traditional world views, those utilities are not needed, not appropriate,” he said. “They can get on without them.”

An elderly woman living alone with her dogs and sheep out in the desert could potentially get a generator and solar panels, but with those things comes an electric bill, and a checking account to pay that electric bill. Those are things she has gotten along without her whole life, and she just doesn’t want any of the hassles. She’s doing fine.

“It’s that: ‘I’m doing fine,’ ” Begay said. “Those kinds of things might be needed if you live in town, but for out in a remote canyon, I’m doing all right. It’s all culturally based. It makes sense to that area. If you’re not from that area, it’s hard to understand, which I think the paper spoke to.”

Begay has seen cellphone-tower proposals get shot down because the site would have been on an area where a local family has grazed sheep for hundreds of years.

“It’s a connection to the land, a connection to tradition, that’s hard to understand,” he said.

Local governing chapters

While there may be a nearly universal distrust of non-Natives, there is not universal agreement on many things within the tribe, which did not have a central government until the 20th century and was traditionally a loose confederation of semi-nomadic clans. Navajo government has executive, legislative and judicial branches, but the nation is divided into 110 chapters that have enormous say over what happens locally.

“You find out they don’t do it because individuals may understand it, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it without substantial consultation with all the people,” Pasqualetti said. “It’s not just the Navajo as a body of people, it’s the Navajo intratribal too. It’s one chapter to another.”

Imagine a chapter with solar power that has radios, lights at night, cellphone chargers and so on, Pasqualetti said. The chapter beside them doesn’t have any of that. They ask, “Why do you have it and we don’t?”

 “Well, you made it so difficult that we put it over here where people wanted it,” Pasqualetti said. “Now you have even worse conditions. You have to look at it from an anthropological or ethnographic entry point.”

“Energy is a social issue with a technical component, rather than the other way around. ... One reason you can fail is you didn’t pay enough attention to the societal aspects of the problem.”
— Martin Pasqualetti, professor in ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Begay said the Navajo Nation is very locally based. From chapters down to the family level, they will sharply look at a proposed project, who’s approaching them, and the level of community support.

“The local governing units, families, chapters have a lot of say in what happens because of these historical ownership of lands,” he said.

Ownership doesn’t necessarily translate to holding a deed. People who have lived in a certain spot for centuries will have more sway than a legal landowner, for example.

“A lot of times these projects don’t get off the ground because of these cultural and social rights to the land,” Begay said. “If a community at a chapter house wants to create a partnership or engage in wind farms or whatnot, everybody has to agree. It has to be a hundred percent unanimous vote.”

Reticence to adopt renewable energy doesn’t completely fall at the feet of outside influences, Begay added.

“It seems that when Native communities take on projects on our own, it still seems like we approach these projects from a colonized perspective,” he said. “We might define success on non-Navajo measures. We may take the program planning based on non-Navajo criteria. Even though we have total control over a project, we still think like non-Natives. That’s a colonization component of all the things we do.”

Technology is not the problem, Pasqualetti said. Because the Navajo will make the jump to renewables without an overbearing existing energy infrastructure or the legacy cost of building transmission lines, they will lead the way in adoption.

“Talk to them first,” he said. “The Navajo and other tribes will be showing us the wave of the future, but you have to deal with the people who are there. … It’s an enormous opportunity to open the door to energy futures.”

There are absolutely challenges in the differing worldviews, Begay said,

“What happens, the way it happens, and how it happens are up on Navajo, and for most Native communities for that matter, so different from how it happens off reservations,” he said. “The differing jurisdictions, the different cultural and political aspects, the different financial and economic situations, all that influences how and why things get done on Navajo. It’s truly complex and complicated.”

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ASU students to make donated 2016 Camaro more environmentally friendly.
ASU is one of 16 universities revving up for EcoCAR competition.
Public is invited to see car, tour engineering garage on ASU Polytechnic campus.
January 13, 2016

ASU Polytechnic engineers to rebuild Camaro for EcoCAR competition

Update: See below for photos from Thursday's unveiling.

What happens to a brand-new sports car when you give it to engineering students?

They tear it apart and make it better.

The public is welcome at Arizona State University’s Thursday unveiling of a 2016 Camaro donated by General Motors for a national competition to develop it into a hybrid.

The EcoCAR 3 competition aims at developing the skills of the next generation of automotive engineers training across both engineering and business.

“The big thing is to get the upcoming automotive engineering students on the right track to developing more environmentally friendly vehicles,” said Laurie Ralston, communications faculty adviser on the team and a lecturer in the Graphic Information Technology program, part of the Polytechnic School in the Ira Fulton Schools of Engineering, on the ASU Polytechnic campus.

“GM likes the idea of the possibility of having a genius in the mix that will come up with something.”

The four-year competition between 16 universities is in its second year.

“The past year was more about what we were going to do when we got the car,” said Briana Del Bianco, team communications manager and a senior pursuing a bachelor’s in digital culture with a concentration in technological entrepreneurship.

The team’s 45 students worked on training and research on the car, and chose a powertrain. They decided to go with a parallel hybrid, which will run on electricity from batteries as well as ethanol fuel.

“We’re putting all new components, all new battery packs in the car,” Del Bianco said. “The outside will look the same, but the inside will be completely different.”

Photos from Thursday's unveiling; story continues after gallery.

The car on view at Thursday’s event won’t be intact for long. It needs to be ready for testing at GM’s Yuma Proving Ground.

“We actually have to have a running vehicle by May,” Del Bianco said. “We’ve really got to get cracking on it.”

The car doesn't have to be pretty by May, just functional and hitting its numbers for performance and emissions. The third year is when teams must have the cars consumer-acceptable.

The four-year competition is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and by General Motors. The aim is to build on the 26-year history of the DOE’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions by continuing to develop the next generation of engineers and scientists.

EcoCAR 3 puts industry-leading software tools and sophisticated powertrain components in the hands of students and pits them against a real-world training ground of engineering constraints and technical challenges.

The 45 students on the team come from business and engineering. There are seven sub-teams: mechanical, electrical, controls, systems modeling and simulation, innovation, project management and communications.

Members have to meet deadlines through all four years in areas of engineering, project management, and communications. The idea is to gain hands-on experience engineering, managing and creating communications content in an automotive industry-like setting.

The team is open to new members. Some course credit can be earned, depending on the student’s course of study.

EcoCAR 3 unveiling

What: View ASU’s brand-new 2016 Camaro donated by GM for the competition, never before revealed to the public. A tour of the garage where engineering students will be working on the car in the upcoming year will be provided; tour will include EcoCAR 3 facilities equipment, machinery and tools.

When: 3-4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Where: ASU Polytechnic campus, Simulation Building (7442 E. Tillman Ave., Mesa). Parking will be provided, with signs indicating exact location.

Admission: Free and open to the public.

Details: https://asuecocar3reveal.eventbrite.com.