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ASU reaches milestone in effort to boost solar power generation

TEMPE – Until now, the only mission of the expansive roof atop Wells Fargo Arena was the obvious: keeping the elements out of events inside.

Soon, however, what had been empty space will sport nearly 2,100 solar panels that can create enough energy to power the equivalent of about 125 homes.

This perch also affords a view of solar photovoltaic panels adorning roofs and parking structures elsewhere at Arizona State University.

The panels are creating power – and lots of it.

The university announced recently that its solar energy capacity has reached 10 megawatt-hours at its Tempe and West campuses.

The more than 40,000 solar panels generate energy equivalent to about 5 percent of the university’s total annual energy consumption. The goal of the Campus Solarization Program, launched in 2004, is creating enough energy on ASU’s four campuses to eventually cover 10 to 15 percent.

“We’re in the Valley of the Sun here, and it just makes good sense for us to embrace emerging technologies in solar energy,” said Morgan Olsen, ASU’s executive vice president, treasurer and chief financial officer. “ASU has been a leader in alternative energy research for a long time, particularly solar energy.”

Besides making a statement about the university’s commitment to sustainability, the panels are part of a plan to make the university carbon neutral by 2025 through a combination of generating electricity, reducing use and purchasing energy from renewable sources. By 2035, the university wants to be carbon neutral factoring in the energy students, faculty and staff use getting to and from school.

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ASU owns and operates just two of the more than 40 solar installations on its campuses. It has agreements, ranging from 15 to 20 years, with local utility companies and solar developers to install and operate the others. In return, the university has agreed to buy the energy back from the companies at a fixed cost.

The price ASU pays for that power includes the benefit of federal and state tax credits as well as renewable-energy incentives provided by Arizona Public Service and SRP.

Olsen said ASU is getting close to breaking even on the the program and expects to save money over the life of its deals, even with conservative assumptions of rising electricity costs.

David Brixen, associate vice president of facilities development and management at ASU, said the benefits extend beyond saving money and reducing the school’s carbon footprint.

“While we teach about sustainability, we also are practicing sustainability,” he said.

Brixen said ASU’s capacity of 10 megawatt-hours is the most of any single university in the U.S.

Niles Barnes, projects coordinator with the Association of the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, wasn’t able to confirm whether ASU leads all universities because of differences in documenting solar capacity. But he placed it among leading institutions including Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado State University and the University of Arizona.

ASU is one of more than 40 institutions nationwide with solar capacity exceeding 1 megawatt-hour.

“On-campus solar is developing rapidly, and it’s exciting,” Barnes said. “That shows a real commitment on campuses, and it’s a really visual commitment that people can see and that can have a ripple effect in communities.”

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Brandon Quester/Cronkite News Service

Solar panels fill the roof of a parking structure across the street as project managers for Ameresco, a sustainable energy advising company, analyze solar panels on the roof of Wells Fargo Arena on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. The installation is just one of dozens of solar panels that have been installed on roofs of ASU’s parking structures and buildings.