ASU Associate Professor Cody Friesen. Photo: Jessica Hochreiter, Arizona Board of Regents.

100-year-old utility system collides with solar advances — ASU researchers seek solutions

ASU’s transdisciplinary approach also lives in its solar and renewable energy research.

ASU’s chief research and innovation officer, Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, loves to toss these impressive figures into casual conversation: Between 2001 and 2016, Arizona State University more than quadrupled its research output from $110 million to more than $500 million annually. It’s a nice icebreaker, but the “why” behind those figures, he asserts, is what really moves a conversation.

Panchanathan knows bright research minds can’t live in silos. They need an entrepreneurial environment that arms them with insights from other disciplines. How does this work? A cybersecurity researcher, for example, benefits from a sociologist’s input to help identify a hacker in a dangerous dark net underworld. This transdisciplinary approach also lives in ASU’s solar and renewable energy research.

“We can’t just care about ‘how to produce a high-efficiency [solar] cell’ and put all the science and engineering into that,” he says.

Starting with innovation

Currently, solar technology can be seen as a disruptor in energy and utility systems. Panels are more affordable than ever, and consumer demand keeps climbing. Arizona’s smart meter debate is one example of how renewables don’t easily mesh with an old system. But don’t expect the friction to stop anytime soon. Solar will continue to get better — and cheaper.

Christiana Honsberg is the director and principal investigator at QESST (Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies), a grant-funded engineering research center at the ASU Research Park. Efficiency, she says, is the name of the solar innovation game these days.

One QESST project led by Professor Yong-Hang Zhang explores solar panel materials. Silicon, long used in panels, is expensive but more efficient than cheaper thin-film materials. The team experimented with adding a small amount of silicon to thin-film cells and saw dramatic increases in efficiency.

Mixing other materials at the QESST site has also worked. Typical systems today see between 15 and 25 percent efficiency; Honsberg and her team regularly see 35 percent, and there’s the potential to climb to 50 percent using combinations of certain materials.

Grid grappling, regulation

Squeezing more out of solar cells is only one part of the transition to renewables and away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, renewables introduced into a rigid 100-year-old grid system also pose problems.

The natural volatility of renewable energy like solar and wind (the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow) impacts how effectively energy works on the existing electrical grid. One ASU research effort, led by professors Junshan Zhang, Kory W. Hedman, Vijay Vittal and Anna Scaglione, uses a $3 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop technologies to improve the coordination of renewables on the grid.

ASU researchers also study regulatory frameworks needed to integrate more renewables into our current energy systems. Professor Kristin Mayes, a former Arizona Corporation Commission commissioner who co-authored the Arizona Renewable Energy Standard, directs the Utility of the Future Center at ASU. There, she and others design regulatory models to assist states in making this important transition.

Mayes currently consults with the Big Island of Hawaii as it works with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission to design a regulatory system that allows its utilities to meet an ambitious 100-percent renewable power generation goal. She also studies states like New York, which has created a Utility of the Future process called REV — Reforming the Energy Vision.

These changes are industry deregulation plays. They move away from the traditional structure, where a utility controls all energy generation, transmission and distribution. With more customers producing their own power — as is the case with solar installations — utilities may transition to a model that only includes distribution services. It’s a radical shift in business and regulatory practice with no precedent. Not to mention, utilities still answer to shareholders expecting stable profits.

Thoughtful progress

Energy systems are large and complex; they require a measured, thoughtful approach to change, explains Gary Dirks, director of ASU’s LightWorks Energy and Society group. Through LightWorks, Dirks and fellow researchers mobilize experts from the social sciences and humanities to address issues of social justice, ethics, values or workforce changes as a result of energy system shifts.

This work corresponds with a key objective of Campaign ASU 2020, which raises funds for critical university initiatives. Through the campaign, the hope is to create an advanced-certificate curriculum in “energy transitions management.”

There are potential hazards when transitioning to predominantly renewable generation either too slowly or too rapidly. Moving too fast could pose a widespread power disruption, which could be catastrophic to the global economy and society, according to Dirks. He also asserts that the long-held business-as-usual approach to fossil fuels can’t continue either.

“Whatever pathway we follow, it’s exceedingly important that the transformation is continuously reliable and continuously resilient,” he says.

Solving big world problems

While ASU quadrupled its research output, it also doubled down on entrepreneurship to help introduce new sustainable technologies into society.

Cody Friesen, a Fulton Professor of Innovation in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, used his entrepreneurial skills to solve long-time problems tied to delivering clean, sustainable energy to remote, rural areas. Friesen’s research team developed a rechargeable zinc-air battery, which launched Fluidic Energy Inc., a private company now set to bring reliable power to 500 remote Indonesian islands.

The “500 Island Project,” one of the largest rural electrification projects in the world, will employ Fluidic’s unique sustainable-energy system to provide electricity to 1.7 million people. Fluidic is carrying out the project in partnership with Caterpillar Inc and PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara, Indonesia’s state-owned electric company.

ASU seeks to advance more entrepreneurial projects through Campaign ASU 2020, a campaign to fuel discovery, creativity and innovative projects like Friesen’s. To learn how you can invest in entrepreneurship and innovation, go to

Originally published at on February 7, 2017.

Official Medium account of ASU. № 1 in innovation. Top 10 of all universities worldwide for U.S. patents awarded. Find more ASU news at