Arizona State University prides itself on being a sustainable campus and it's upholding that pride by creating full solarization by September of this year.
"We get calls from all across the country and since ASU is on the forefront they want to learn from us," said Ray Tena, engineer for capital programs at ASU.
One of the more large-scale projects ASU is currently working on is to reach a goal of carbon-neutrality, promoted by university president Michael Crow. Part of that goal includes installing solar panels on all parking garages and various buildings throughout campus. This project should put solar on about 43 buildings and parking structures between the Tempe, Polytechnic, West and Downtown campuses.
Solar panels, or photovoltaic cells, are made of thin slices of silicon, which are semi-conductors. They absorb the photons from solar cells and excite the electrons to move. The energy conducted from the movement is then trapped and used.
David Brixen, who is partners with Tena on the solar panel venture, explained the beginning of the project in 2004 on top of the Tyler Street parking structure.
"Some time before 2004 we worked with Professor Harvey Bryan, who surveyed much of the Tempe campus for roof tops that would make a good location for PV installations," Brixen said. "The program just took off after we did the initial installation in 2004 on the Tyler Street parking structure."
That first structure was 30 kilowatts and was grossly over engineered, said Bonny Bentzin, director of university sustainability practices.
"It was a very important learning step for the university," Bentzin said. "We knew we couldn't own [all of the solar panels] so we started the power purchase agreements, which allowed us to complete the first full and working installation in 2008."
These power purchase installations are how ASU pays for the panels. The university does not own the panels, the contracting company does, but ASU pays for the power that is generated.
"They put the installation up, we buy the power. It doesn't count as debt to us," Bentzin said. "If the wind takes it down or whatever it's not our problem."
ASU goes through a long process on deciding contractors with each project. First, ASU makes a proposal to several companies, competition steps in and the university decides the best choice depending on the project. The company comes up with the engineering plan, get the equipment, operate and maintain the panels. The company's financing comes from a third party - making it no cost to the university, or its students.
"Our stated goal is to install in excess of 15 megawatts," Brixen said. "We think we may be able to achieve 20 megawatts and that is what president Crow would like to see."
There is a contract between ASU and the company for 15 to 20 years. After the contract is up, the university has the option to buy the panels at its market value at that time, allowing them to continue to produce energy from the panels.
The panels haven't started saving Arizona State money yet, Bentzin said, and it's hard to estimate how much money will be saved due to some intangible benefits from the panels.
"Right now it's not saving us money, it's an investment that is going to save us money in two to three years," Bentzin said. "But from them the university also gets more visibility, in terms of students that want to go here, contracts that want to work with us and covered parking structures."
These panels have supplied the electricity for daily use in the building, and their completed solar panel projects have totaled 4.665 megawatts of installed photovoltaic with 9.620 megawatts in the process to be finished by April of this year and 15.965 megawatts between the Downtown, West, Polytechnic and Tempe campuses at the end of the project.
To give some idea of how much energy is being output; one megawatt of solar power can sustain about 165 average American homes, or two to three office or classroom buildings on campus.
One panel is 210 watts, a light bulb is about 100 watts," Tena said. "There's 880 kilowatts in the structure so take 880,000 kilowatts and divide it by 210 in a panel, that's how much energy each solar panel produces."
That's about 4,190 watts per panel, so one panel produces the power of more than 4,000 light bulbs, all at no cost to students.
"Some structures that have the solar panels on top of them do not use all of the power. An example would be parking garages, so that energy is then transferred into the rest of the campus," Tena said.
These parking structures with solar panels as roofing provides shaded spots for those who park on the roof, along with putting ASU on the map for sustainable practices and keeping its stance as a strong leader in the green movement for universities.
ASU houses three different types of solar panels throughout all of the campuses. The first is called fixed, meaning that it is a stationary panel. The second is single-axis that has a sensor attached, which can detect where maximum sunrays are at that time of day and can que the panels to move from east to west. The third is a two-axis, also known as a flexible display, which moves north, south, east and west to follow the sun. This panel is at ASU's Research Park located at the West Campus, which is also home to the largest solar campus in the country for a university its size, according to the "Princeton Review."
Emily Rosen, sustainability major at ASU and president of the School of Sustainability College Council, agrees that projects like these are necessary to keep ASU in the spotlight and spread the green word to other campuses.
"I think that it's helping the campus, not only in the obvious way to provide energy to sustain us but also to solidify the sustainability mindset and to get the sustainability word out there," Rosen said.
• Emily Pomilio is a student at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.