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5 solar projects get $4 million in grants

Brian Myer (left), a doctoral student in optics at the University of  Arizona, talks about ways to store solar energy with Nate Allen (middle right) of Biosphere 2 and John Madocks at Global Solar Energy, 8500 S. Rita Road.

Brian Myer (left), a doctoral student in optics at the University of Arizona, talks about ways to store solar energy with Nate Allen (middle right) of Biosphere 2 and John Madocks at Global Solar Energy, 8500 S. Rita Road.

Five new projects granted $4 million in seed money could help make Arizona a center for solar development, backers said Friday.

Science Foundation Arizona announced the projects, and the formation of its new Solar Technology Institute, at lunch events in Tucson and Phoenix.

The Tucson event, attended by about 100 industry, government and university officials, was held just outside a 310,000- square-foot solar array that provides power at Global Solar Energy, 8500 S. Rita Road.

“The goal is developing disruptive technology breakthroughs that will bring the cost of solar energy down to the level of fossil fuels,” said Richard C. Powell, co-director of Solar Technology Institute. “We want to make Arizona a leader in the drive to change to solar.”

“Germany, Spain and even New Jersey lead Arizona in the development of solar energy,” said Paul Newman, a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities. “We’ve got to change that.”

The $4 million will provide startup funding for the projects, Powell said.

Half of the funding comes from Science Foundation Arizona and half from the private sector.

The funding is in hand and not affected by state budget cuts for the organization, Powell said.

The projects cover the full solar spectrum, from collecting the sun’s energy to distributing electricity to consumers, said Leslie Tolbert, vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development at the University of Arizona.

“The goal here is not just to meet our energy needs but to become a net exporter,” Tolbert said.

The projects are collaborations that include UA, Arizona State University and a variety of industry partners, she said.

Solar panels don’t work at night, and energy storage is a challenge that one funded project is addressing, Powell said.

Plans call for generating excess solar power during the day that will be used to compress air that will be stored, he said.

When darkness curtails energy production, the stored compressed air can be used to drive turbines to generate electricity, he said.

Another project is using nanotechnology to improve the efficiency of thin-film solar devices while driving the price down, said Ray Kostuk, UA professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Ultra-thin coatings will cause sunlight to spend more time exciting the elements in thin-film devices so they produce more electricity, Kostuk said.

Other projects are:

• Concentrator photovoltaics to develop the next generation of low-cost solar reflectors that concentrate the sun’s energy on high-efficiency photovoltaic cells.

• Quickly testing and certifying solar products to determine the performance of new and improved technologies.

• An improved system of “smart” electric grid management and command and control software to help select future power generation sites, storage sites and distribution and transmission pathways throughout the state.

Science Foundation Arizona is a nonprofit public-private partnership that invests areas of strategic importance to the state, including renewable energy and biomedicine.

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