New UA Institute to Develop Solar Energy Solutions

The institute aims to develop solar energy’s potential through research, industry partnerships and policy solutions.
Dec. 17, 2007
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The Visitor Center project is one of the many solar energy projects around the UA campus. Its photovoltaic solar energy panels are installed on the center's south awning.
The Visitor Center project is one of the many solar energy projects around the UA campus. Its photovoltaic solar energy panels are installed on the center's south awning.

With the support of the Arizona Board of Regents, The University of Arizona has taken a significant step forward in establishing solar energy as the resource that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lead to energy independence and benefit the state’s economy.

The Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy, known as AzRISE, was established at the UA this summer with the goal of fully developing solar energy’s potential through research, industry partnerships and policy solutions.

At its December meeting, the Arizona Board of Regents approved $3.35 million of additional funding for AzRISE through the Technology and Research Innovation Fund, known as TRIF.

TRIF is a special investment in higher education made possible by the passage of Proposition 301 in November 2000. Proceeds from a 0.6-cent increase in state sales tax are apportioned to statewide education at all levels. Each Arizona university determines how it will invest its allocations.

Arizona has a shortage of water, an abundance of sun and population growth among the highest in the nation.

AzRISE is a response to the challenge of planning for large-scale, affordable solar energy power generation and training the work force that will make this transition possible.

The research goals of AzRISE include identifying, funding and coordinating Arizona-specific solar energy research opportunities, developing intellectual property and promoting development and widespread adoption of solar energy. AzRISE is unique to Arizona as it combines research and outreach in its efforts to promote solar energy.

Joseph H. Simmons, AzRISE co-director and head of the UA’s materials science and engineering department, leads the research component of the Institute.

“Solar energy may be the one solution to provide additional energy to this population without significant water use and loss of air quality,” Simmons said. “We want to do whatever is possible to make solar energy generation cheaper and more efficient.”

Simmons also sees AzRISE as a resource in encouraging interdisciplinary research among scientists and engineers who would not normally work together. Two research areas of interest to AzRISE are solar energy generation/storage and solar-powered desalination, which address issues of particular concern to the Southwest.

If Arizona succeeds in developing large-scale, low-cost solar energy conversion strategies, it may be able to sell energy to other states in addition to meeting its own energy needs.

Gary Jones has joined AzRISE as co-director, leading the outreach and business side of the institute. He will work with utilities and companies, the Arizona Corporation Commission, local governments and other organizations to identify areas where AzRISE can make an impact.

“I believe we’re on the verge on an industrial-scale revolution in the move to clean energies,” Jones said. “And solar energy will be a first among equals.”

Still in its formative stages, AzRISE will eventually have a tiered affiliate structure for individuals, corporations and government agencies, along with a board of advisors.

AzRISE representatives have already had conversations with the city of Tucson, Pima County and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base about implementing solar energy conversion systems.

Ardeth Barnhart, a policy analyst for AzRISE, is responsible for helping to identify policy solutions that will help local governments meet their solar energy needs and new businesses to succeed. “We are looking at state, national and global policies to see how certain approaches may help Arizona,” Barnhart said.

The campus community has responded enthusiastically to the initiative, with faculty from the UA Science, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering, Law, Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Optical Sciences and Management colleges already participating in AzRISE efforts.

One of the roles of AzRISE is to take research that is patented at the University and help bring it to market. “If we can have these resources developed by Arizona companies, then we magnify the economic impact tremendously. This is of prime economic importance to the state,” Jones said.

The genesis of AzRISE came from the Arizona Solar Electric Roadmap Study, which recommended the development of a solar energy center of excellence within the Arizona university system. Simmons served on the committee that helped conduct the study.

“After attending community meetings in Southern Arizona, I discovered that there was another need beyond solar energy research,” Simmons said. “The community was looking for leadership that would help businesses, utilities, local governments and others.”

AzRISE was launched in August 2007, and has placed an initial emphasis on reaching out to businesses and organizations throughout Arizona and identifying solar energy research already taking place.

The new funding approved by the regents will allow AzRISE to support individual research efforts and continue its outreach efforts to promote solar energy adoption.

Simmons sees no downside to the prospect of widespread adoption of solar energy. “In some cases you can develop it using very little water. It is a clean source of energy, totally renewable and abundant. What is wrong with not wanting to develop it?”