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ASU plays key role in Arizona's landing of Suntech

November 18, 2009

The sun shines bright in the Valley, but that is not the reason why China’s leading manufacturer of solar panels, Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd., decided to locate its first manufacturing plant here. It is its longstanding ties to Arizona State University that helped convince the manufacturer of the benefits of metropolitan Phoenix, said Jonathan Fink, a Foundation Professor professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. 

“These earlier steps, which date back more than a decade, represent the apolitical, technology based cultivation that universities are best suited to carry out, usually behind the scenes,” Fink said.

Suntech announced its choice of the Phoenix metropolitan area for its first U.S. plant on Nov. 15 and cited several reasons, including the research strengths of ASU, Arizona’s statewide renewable energy policies and the favorable local business climate fostered by groups like the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. While Suntech will provide a modest initial commitment of about 75 new jobs and a facility of about 100,000 sq feet of space, it is the fact that they chose the Valley that has many people excited.

“It is great news for the Valley,” said R.F. “Rick” Shangraw, ASU vice president for Research and Economic Affairs. “This is the place where the largest solar module manufacturer in the world chose to have its first U.S. manufacturing base. They chose it in large measure due to the value they see in industry university partnerships.”

But it took a personal touch to get them interested in the Valley.

"If it wasn’t for ASU and Jon Fink, I doubt Suntech, especially Dr. Zhengrong Shi its CEO, would have taken much interest in Arizona in the first place,” said Rob Melnick, executive dean of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Suntech first learned about ASU in the 1990s through the school’s Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory (PTL), where their solar modules were tested and certified. In 2006, PTL’s director, Mani Tamizhmani, provided a group of ASU administrators a letter of introduction to Suntech’s Shi. Fink, who at the time was ASU’s vice president for Research and Economic Affairs, traveled with a small group to Suntech’s headquarters in Wuxi, China, to meet with Shi.

At the time, Fink and Melnick (then the associate vice president for economic affairs) were talking to many solar companies in Germany and China about possibly setting up operations in the Valley. Their message was simple and powerful.

“We took all of our solar pieces, some of which dated back to the 1960s, packaged them into a coherent program and then described ASU as the one place that has an end-to-end approach to solar,” Fink explained. “Not only did we have scientists discovering new materials and making new types of devices, but also architects creating new kinds of building-integrated photovoltaics (PV), the only PV testing lab in the U.S. (PTL), and dialogues with real estate developers about how you can design new communities that best incorporate renewable energy, particularly solar.”

After several formal meetings and, more importantly, many informal email exchanges, Shi and Fink found that there was more than just a good technical match between Suntech and ASU.

“Dr. Shi has a deep philosophical commitment towards sustainability,” said Fink, who also is director of the Center for Sustainability Science Applications. “As one of China’s strongest proponents of environmentally sound economic policies, he was impressed by the leading role ASU was taking in sustainability research and education.”

In 2007, Shi invited Fink to give a presentation in China on the many ways that universities can support the solar industry. “I was the only American academic to talk at this gathering of several hundred Chinese industrialists, government officials and academics, organized by the U.S. Department of Energy and Suntech,” Fink said. “It was excellent exposure for Arizona.”

When ASU sought to expand the solar expertise on its faculty, Fink turned to Shi for advice. Two recent senior recruits, Christiana Honsberg and Stuart Bowden, had been colleagues of Shi when he got his Ph.D. in Australia.

One of the most crucial pieces in the Suntech recruitment was a meeting in China in June 2007 when Shi mentioned to Fink that he and his senior leadership were planning a trip to the U.S. the following month to meet with political leaders. Along with representatives from Arizona Public Service, Fink was able to persuade the Suntech team to make their first visit to Phoenix, where he arranged for them to meet with former Governor Napolitano, William Harris of Science Foundation Arizona, staff from the Arizona Department of Commerce and several local business leaders. In the months that followed, the Suntech leaders frequently referred back to the positive impression of that early visit.

“Suntech coming to Phoenix says a great deal about how research universities, if they choose to, can help with economic development,” Fink said. “If you want to advance these new technologies, you need places where new ideas will be generated and that usually occurs in research labs. We hope their local manufacturing presence will lead Suntech to build scientific and technical collaborations with ASU, so they can tell us which important questions need to be answered to improve their ability to bring solar to market.

ASU’s expanded role in driving the Valley’s economic development has been an important part of Michael Crow’s presidency. Other recent steps include the securing of funding for several key alternative energy projects, like its new Energy Frontier Research Center, two large and highly competitive ARPA-E grants and the start up of the LightWorks initiative. Fink sees all of these as reflections of how ASU can help the Valley diversify its economy.

“We weren’t just suggesting Suntech should come here because there is a lot of sunshine,” he added. “We were saying there is also the potential for a lot of new ideas and if we partner with you, you can incorporate those into your R&D strategy.”