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Delegation soaks up solar know-how

April 05, 2007

A delegation from ASU recently traveled to Germany to learn more about German solar energy efforts and how ASU can tap into its solar future.

The group's members – Jon Fink, vice president for research and economic affairs, Rob Melnick, associate vice president for economic affairs, and Govindasamy Tamizhmani, an associate professor at ASU Polytechnic – also were acting as ambassadors for the state of Arizona .

Solar energy and other renewable energy sources are getting greater scrutiny in light of growing concerns over global warming and fossil fuel emissions. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy recently announced 13 winning teams in the Solar America Initiative research competition, which aims to bring down the cost of solar-generated power. All teams are industry-led, and ASU has a role in two of these projects.

For the Germany visit, the ASU team wanted to learn more about what it would take for Arizona to take its rightful place at or near the top of states engaging with the solar industry, Fink says.

“Germany leads the world in solar, even though they lack one important ingredient: sunshine,” Fink says.

With more than 330 days per year of sunshine, Arizona has plenty of the Germans' missing ingredient. Arizona also could be an early entry point for German companies into U.S. markets. What the Germans have is know-how in engaging the solar industry.

“Germany went from having very little solar industry to having the largest in the world in a period of just a few years,” Fink says. “We wanted to get firsthand information about how this transformation took place, to see if there were lessons that would be relevant to Arizona.”

The attraction between Germany and Arizona is mutual, says Bud Annan, the former leader of the U.S. Department of Energy's solar energy programs who worked with Fink on shaping the Germany visit.

“Germany is at the cutting edge of solar markets,” Annan says. “Electrical growth in Arizona is second to none in the United States. We have two-thirds more sunshine than Germany – and, with master-planned communities, Arizona is a market where cost reductions of solar energy can be realized through economies of scale.”

The ASU delegation met with several German counterparts, with each having their specific areas to cover. For example, Melnick wanted to find out if there was interest among German companies to expand into U.S. markets – and if they would consider making ASU SkySong a base for their operations. Tamizhmani wanted to meet with the German equivalent of ASU's Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory and speak with companies that use them.

The group met with Herman Scheer, a longtime member of the German Bundestag (parliament), who led the successful effort to change German laws and regulations making them more favorable to the solar industry. Scheer, who has been most influential in moving Germany toward “green energy,” recently came to ASU as part of a book tour, the direct result of the ASU visit.

The ASU group learned about solar technology and industry from Winfried Hoffmann of Schott Solar GmbH, Alzenau, Germany, who talked about the economic factors that can influence the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Gerhard Kleiss, of SolarWorld, Bonn, spoke to the ASU contingent on how to market solar technology and expand associated business opportunities.

The group visited the second-largest manufacturer of solar cells in the world, Q-Cells AG, Thalheim. Q-Cells has a research program in solar cells and is interested in research and design collaborations with ASU. Officials at SolarWorld also are interested in collaborations with ASU.

What ASU can provide these companies, Melnick says, includes early entry into an expanding Arizona solar energy market with improving tax incentives and a technically proficient work force.

“Arizona provides relatively cheap and close access to California , an important market for the German solar companies,” Melnick says. “So we made the case for SkySong – the ASU-Scottsdale Center for Innovation and New Technology – as a potential platform from which these companies could operate in the United States.”

Fink adds that ASU could fill several additional roles for the German companies, including:

• Helping in the discovery and characterization of new photovoltaic materials.

• Helping develop new manufacturing techniques and testing of modules, inverters and other finished products.

• Aiding in the deployment of solar in large-scale communities.

• Helping assess the policy aspects and economics of distributed versus centralized power generation.

Fink says the groups continue to exchange ideas, and several valuable lessons have been learned already.

“We should continue to grow across the spectrum of solar technology and policy in order to preserve and expand our position as one of the most comprehensive solar programs in the world,” Fink says. “We should strengthen our ties to U.S. national laboratories, especially the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden Colo., and we should expand the scope of the Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory, taking advantage of its excellent reputation across the United States and overseas.”