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German manufacturer to donate solar panels to Biosphere 2

A German solar panel manufacturer will donate hundreds of solar panels to Biosphere 2, allowing the science center north of Tucson to expand its research into renewable energy, the company and Biosphere announced Wednesday.

Solon Corp., which opened a solar panel factory in Tucson in 2008, will give the research center 470 solar panels capable of generating about two-thirds of the power for the Biosphere conference facility.

By summer, the panels should be installed on a hillside near the 3-acre glass Biosphere enclosure, said Travis Huxman, the University of Arizona facility’s director.

The array of 3-by-6-foot panels will generate electricity and be used for research and education, Huxman said.

“It gives us the ability to show these technologies to the public,” he said.

The flexible film cells and panels will be made in Tucson, said Solon CEO Olaf Köster.

Cooperation among Solon, Biosphere and other UA departments will likely expand in the next two years, Köster said.

“I think we have a lot of nice, good projects we can do together,” he said.

Potential areas of research include solar cell durability, power storage and efficiency, said Alex Cronin, an assistant physics professor at UA.

The connection between UA and Biosphere could make the research center a leader in solar research. Federal agencies, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Department of Energy, are funding renewable energy research, Cronin said.

“Several (UA) departments are involved in these research opportunities,” he said.

Biosphere does not have any photovoltaic panels, which turn sunlight into electricity, but the facility has had thermal solar energy since it was built in 1987. From the beginning, plans included photovoltaic panels, though they were never installed.

The Solon panels, valued at $240,000, will generate about 80,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, about six times the state’s average residential use.

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