A new age of energy dawns at ASU

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From rooftop panels that shrink our utility bills to chargers for our smartphones, there’s an endless variety of solar-powered gadgets and products under the sun. Yet many people are in the dark about the history of harnessing solar power. The story of photovoltaics began more than a half century ago — and ASU played a pivotal role.

A new age of energy dawns at ASU

By Lori K. Baker

Sep. 15, 2020

On April 25, 1954, Bell Labs announced its latest invention, a silicon solar cell, at a press conference in Murray Hill, New Jersey. A hush fell over the audience during a demonstration of the nation’s first solar panel, used to power a toy Ferris wheel and a radio transmitter.

The breakthrough made national media headlines, with The New York Times reporting that the silicon solar cell “may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams — the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

The dream of harnessing the sun’s limitless energy took root 2,000 miles away at Arizona State University that year. Visionaries Farrington Daniels, a University of Wisconsin researcher, together with Arizona businessmen Henry Sargent, Walter Bimson and Frank Snell, founded the new Association for Applied Solar Energy, a nonprofit scientific and educational organization headquartered at ASU.

With an average of 300 sunny days per year, the Valley of the Sun proved to be the ideal location for advancing solar-powered energy.

Today, more than 160,000 solar installations in Arizona produce enough energy to power more than 768,000 homes. With prices falling 38% over the last 5 years, solar energy is becoming more cost effective and widespread. ASU’s solar program provides more than 50 MWdc equivalent solar generating capacity, which contributed to the university reaching its goal of becoming carbon neutral in 2020, with zero greenhouse gas emissions from campus operations.  

Here, we chronicle some of the major milestones in the history of solar energy development at ASU, revealing how the university has emerged as a national leader in the field.

1955

First Solar Energy Symposium draws international leaders

Members attend the first Solar Symposium, hosted at ASU

The World Symposium on Applied Solar Energy features presentations by an international cast of thought leaders in an event that draws 130 delegates from 36 countries and spotlights solar’s issues and applications. The event is co-sponsored by the Association for Applied Solar Energy headquartered at ASU.

1956

ASU installs first solar furnace

ASU's first solar furnace

A groundbreaking structure featured in Time and Life magazines, the solar furnace uses mirrors to concentrate light on a focal point, generating high heat used to make electricity.

1972

Advancing research with one of the nation’s largest solar energy library collections

ASU’s Hayden Library houses one of the largest solar energy library collections in the country since 1972, including one-of-a-kind reference materials published by the International Solar Energy Society.

1974

Preparing the next generation of solar energy professionals

ASU College of Architecture's master's degree program on solar applications

ASU’s College of Architecture leads the nation as the first program to offer a master’s degree focused on solar applications.

1975

Fueling Arizona’s solar energy development

 An Arizona Republic cartoon about an Arizona solar energy initiative

Arizona Governor Raul Hector Castro establishes the Arizona Solar Energy Research Commission, which empowers state institutions, businesses, universities and local governments to successfully obtain federal support for solar energy development.

1983

ASU opens first solar demonstration facility

ASU's first solar demonstration facility

The university launches a facility that demonstrates active and passive solar energy conservation features and serves as a research center for scientists conducting solar strategies testing.

1992

Building a more efficient solar energy cell

ASU builds a more efficient solar cell

ASU launches the Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory, where faculty, staff and students test and certify photovoltaic module reliability, durability and performance while forging key partnerships within the solar energy industry.

2004

ASU’s first solar system saves energy and provides shaded parking on Tempe campus

ASU's first solar power system is installed on top of the Tyler Street parking structure.

ASU’s first solar power system is installed on top of the Tyler Street parking structure. The 34 kWdc system provides enough energy to power the entire structure’s lighting and shades 44 parking spaces.

2006

Setting the state standard for generating solar and other renewable energy

Arizona Corporation Commissioner and ASU Professor Kristin Mayes helps co-author the Arizona Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff (REST), which requires utilities to generate 15 percent of their overall energy portfolio from renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass, biogas and geothermal by 2025.

The Arizona Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff generated approximately $2 billion in economic benefits in the state through energy and water savings, reduced carbon emissions, decreased technology costs and increased renewable energy investment between 2008-18, according to an estimate by California-based consulting firm Strategen.

2008

Solar Power Laboratory boosts Arizona energy industry

ASU launches the Solar Power Laboratory to advance solar energy research, education and technology. Christiana Honsberg and Stuart Bowden, experts from one of the nation’s leading solar energy research programs, join ASU to lead the laboratory. Initial funding to create the comes from Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF), part of a voter-approved sales tax increase to support education in the state.

TUV Rheinland partners with ASU on new solar energy facility

TUV Rheinland Group joins forces with ASU to create TUV Rheinland PTL, the most comprehensive, sophisticated, state-of-the-art facility for testing and certification of solar energy equipment in the world. The powerful duo combines the stellar reputation, technological sophistication, management expertise and international reach of TUV Rheinland — a global leader in independent testing and assessment services — with ASU’s more than 50 years of research on solar energy and extensive solar testing abilities.

2009

ASU’s Energy Frontier Research Center opens

ASU's Energy Frontier Research Center
Devens Gust, Energy Frontier Research Center director

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the ASU center pursues advanced scientific research on solar energy conversion based on the principles of photosynthesis. The goal is to accelerate scientific advances needed to build a 21st century energy economy.

2011

Engineering Research Center launches to accelerate solar energy development

ASU Engineering Research Center opens to advance solar energy development.
Christiana Honsberg, Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies ERC director

ASU launches the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) ERC with $18.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy. QESST provides a staging ground for major innovations in solar energy devices and systems, supported by ASU’s state-of-the-art Solar Power Lab. The center forges industry partnerships that accelerate commercialization of solar energy technologies and expands energy engineering education options.

Downtown Phoenix and West campuses install first solar power systems

ASU Downtown Phoenix campus opens its first solar facility.

ASU expands its solar capacity by installing a 77-kWdc system on the roof of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication building and 322 solar panels on the ASU West campus. 

2012

Commanding the lead in solar energy

One of 74 solar systems on the ASU Tempe campus in 2012

ASU’s Tempe campus, with 74 solar systems, has the largest solar energy capacity of a single university nationwide. Collectively, photovoltaic and solar thermal installations on ASU’s four campuses generate 23.5 MWdc of energy as of 2012, avoiding 21,991 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year.

2017

Numerous ASU solar innovations go to market

In 2017, QESST creates three new student and alumni-based spinout companies (bringing the total to eight), one of which set a NREL certified solar cell efficiency record. ASU’s solar patent portfolio expands from 18 to 22 provisional or full patents, while QESST alumni work as scientists, engineers and policy makers in 54 different technology firms, national labs and other energy related fields.

2018

ASU solar engineers break solar cell record two years in a row

ASU Assistant Professor Zachary Holman in his laboratory
ASU electrical engineer Zachary Holman

Assistant Professor Zachary Holman and Assistant Research Professor Zhengshan “Jason” Yu in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering set a world record of 23.6 percent efficiency for a tandem solar cell stacked with perovskite and silicon in 2017. The number was a few percentage points shy of the theoretical efficiency limit for silicon solar cells alone.

A year later, the team improves upon the record by nearly two percentage points, to 25.4 percent, in a joint project with researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The team predicts they’ll be nearing 30 percent tandem efficiency within a few years.

ASU radiant with solar cell research awards

ASU earns six prestigious Department of Energy awards, totaling nearly $5.7 million, ranking it first among university recipients of Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) awards to advance photovoltaic research and development in 2018.

SETO funds early-stage research projects that advance both solar photovoltaics and concentrating solar-thermal power technologies. It also supports efforts that prepare the solar workforce for the industry’s future needs.

2020

New tandem cell research enables greater returns from current energy infrastructure

 Zachary Holman, an ASU electrical engineer,  and members of his team discover how a microscopic alteration to industry-standard silicon wafers permits a significant enhancement to solar cell composition. The change can boost the efficiency of solar panels and lower the cost of energy production. The team’s findings are published in the science journal Joule.

ASU's solar energy advancements are partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 800 patents, 280 new startup companies and hands-on training for approximately 33,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.