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ASU plays key role in solar initiative


April 02, 2007

ASU is a partner in two grants to further develop solar energy, which were recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The grants are part of the Solar America Initiative (SAI), announced last year by President George W. Bush.

SAI grants are industry led solar-technology development projects selected for up to $168 million (fiscal years 2007-2009) in total funding. The 13 teams that secured grants will provide more than 50 percent of the funding for these projects, potentially bringing the total research investment to more than $357 million. The projects are expected to help significantly lower the costs of producing and distributing solar energy, bringing it more in line with conventional energy sources.

ASU is involved in a project led by BP Solar, Frederick, Md., and a second project led by Amonix Inc., Torrance , Calif. Jonathan Fink, vice president of research and economic affairs, says ASU is one of four universities involved in multiple SAI projects. (The other three schools are MIT, Georgia Tech and the University of Delaware .)

“The SAI grants are the largest current federal investment in commercially-based solar technology,” Fink says. “The fact that ASU was selected by two different teams reflects on how highly our research is regarded. This is due to the strong relationships ASU's Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory has built up over the years and the novelty of our integrated interdisciplinary approach.”

The interdisciplinary approach is center stage in the BP Solar project. This team will focus on reducing solar-cell wafer thickness and improving yield of multicrystalline silicon photovoltaics (PV) for commercial and residential markets. DOE funding for the first year of the project is expected to be $7.5 million, with about $19.1 million available over three years.

The ASU units involved in the project are the College of Design , the Power Systems Energy Research Center (PSERC), the Electrical Engineering Department, the Photovoltaic Testing Lab (PTL) and the Electronic Systems Department.

Bud Annan, former leader of the U.S. Department of Energy's solar energy programs who helped shape ASU's role in these two projects, says ASU's cross-disciplinary approach is the key.

“We are taking the challenge of designing solar energy systems across all of ASU's capabilities and we are examining solar energy as the total system, rather than just at one element of a solar panel,” he says.

In the project, the ASU team will first look at current BP Solar products and see how they can be used to create maximum value, says Janet Holston, director of the Herberger Center for Design Research in the College of Design . The goal is to have solar energy systems designed into new residential and commercial structures rather than used only as retrofits to existing structures.

“We'll look at BP products and research new uses for those products to be integrated into the built environment in all of its various iterations, with an eye towards roofing and roofing components,” she says. “We'll also look at ways to improve solar energy integration from the very beginning of the design process.”

“Design integration is an important part of this project,” she adds. “We are designing the solar modules to be part of the structures.”

Another key part of the project is improvements to the module's inverter, a power electronics device that converts incoming direct current (DC) into usable alternating current (AC), said Raja Ayyanar, an ASU associate professor in electrical engineering working on the project.

Typically, inverters are used as standalone units controlling the operation of a single home. Because the goal of the BP project is to apply solar to entire communities, or hundreds of houses at a time, the inverter will need to work in concert with many other inverters.

“Large penetration of solar energy creates many issues for instability of inverters,” Ayyanar says. “How these inverters will act with each other is something of a novel concept that we will be exploring and modeling.”

Project partners joining ASU and BP Solar are Dow Corning, Ceradyne, Bekaert, Ferro, Specialized Technology Resources, Komax, Palo Alto Research Center, AFG Industries, Automation Tooling Systems Ohio, Xantrex, Fat Spaniel, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Recticel, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Central Florida.

The Amonix led team will work on a low-cost, high-concentration PV system that can be used in utility markets. The project will help transition Amonix's concentrating PV systems from low-volume to high-volume production.

Utility and mainstream power generation will be achieved using concentrating “mega-modules.” Amonix plans to take advantage of high-volume production to significantly reduce costs associated with current low-volume-concentrating PV market.

ASU's role is to test some of Amonix's newly designed PV systems at the PTL facility, since it is the only third party accredited design qualification laboratory in the United States .

“The Photovoltaic Testing Lab will help Amonix test and evaluate the high-concentration PV systems for performance, durability and reliability,” says Govindasamy “Mani” Tamizhmani, an associate professor at ASU Polytechnic and head of PTL.

DOE funding for the first year of the project is $3.2 million, with about $14.8 million available over three years.

Partners joining ASU and Amonix in the project are CYRO Industries, Xantrex, the Imperial (Calif.) Irrigation District, Hernandez Electric, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Spectrolab, Micrel, Northstar, JOL Enterprises and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

ASU's involvement in these industry led SAI grants is another step forward in its overall solar energy research program.

“ASU's goals in solar energy research include moving our discoveries into real settings, like new housing developments,” Fink says. “The best way to assure that some of our work makes its way into the market is by partnering with industry.”