UArizona unveils interactive display to highlight clean energy partnership

Robert C. Robbins

University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins speaks during the unveiling of the display, on the south side of the Student Union Memorial Center, on Friday, Sept. 9.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Blue and red golf balls race along winding steel tracks encased in glass. Starting from a spinning wind turbine and solar panels rendered in miniature, they roll through tiny replicas of University of Arizona campus landmarks such as Old Main, Arizona Stadium and Main Gate Square.

miniature Old Main inside the ball machine

Balls in the display pass through campus landmarks such as Old Main.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

The balls represent clean energy generated from Tucson Electric Power's Wilmot Energy Center solar-plus-storage system south of Tucson and its Oso Grande Wind farm in southeast New Mexico, both of which power the UArizona main campus.

The entire display is more than 7 feet tall, nearly 12 feet long and 4 feet wide. Other landmarks in its miniaturized landscape include the university's Stevie Eller Dance Theater and the iconic palms trees and saguaros that dot campus. The interactive display lets viewers turn a knob to release balls that gather within a model of the Wilmot Energy' Center's battery storage facility – the real-life version of which stores solar energy until after the sun has set or when energy demands rise.

The rolling ball machine, unveiled today just south of the Student Union Memorial Center south entrance, was designed and built by local company Creative Machines. Every six months, the machine will be relocated to a different spot along the university's group tour path, which potential students and their parents are invited to take when they visit campus for the first time.

The machine serves as a visual representation of the Large Scale Renewable Energy agreement between the university and TEP, which began in July 2021. The agreement will reduce UArizona's carbon footprint by one-third and save the university millions of dollars over the agreement's 20-year life.

"Universities and other institutions of higher education have important roles as leaders in sustainability projects," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "First, because sustainability is critical to the education each of our students receives, as well as to the future of our society. And second, because of our efforts in leveraging our research strength in built environments and future Earth. This interactive display is a powerful visualization of the University of Arizona's commitment to sustainability and a proud reminder of our agreement with Tucson Electric Power to provide campus with 100% emissions-free purchased power." Sustainability is a key initiative in the university's strategic plan

Robert C. Robbins and Susan Gray

Robbins, Tucson Electric Power CEO Susan Gray and Joe O'Connell (left), Creative Machines founder, president and artistic director, unveil the display on Friday, speaking about the importance of the work between the university and TEP.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Every part of the ball machine was made by hand. The steel track was meticulously shaped and welded together, each miniature model was sculpted to scale and hand-painted, and LED lights were tucked within the miniatures to illuminate them from within.

"This project was an exciting and unique opportunity to work with our neighbors TEP and the University of Arizona," said Creative Machines founder, president and artistic director Joe O'Connell. "Everyone loves looking down on a cute diorama that makes the world understandable, but what makes the little world we've brought to life so exciting is that it's an accurate representation of Southern Arizona, where we all live. It is fun and lively, but it is rooted in science. The movement of balls directly stands for the movement of energy in the system. More and more, we are finding our art aligned with science and the bigger questions facing humanity, and this delightful sculpture is a perfect example."

Creative Machines also designs and builds interactive exhibits for children's museums and science centers around the world. There's a small ball machine at the Children's Museum Tucson, but the one at UArizona is the first large-scale installation in town. It also includes three plaques detailing the university's partnership with TEP.

A green, clean campus

Fiscal year 2022 marked the first full year since the start of the Large Scale Renewable Energy agreement. The agreement provides clean, renewable energy that eliminates all scope 2 emissions – those that result from the generation of electricity, heat or steam purchased from a utility.

It mitigated emissions of about 65,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the last fiscal year. That's the equivalent of taking nearly 14,000 gas-powered vehicles off the road for one year, said Trevor Ledbetter, director of the university's Office of Sustainability and an instrumental part of the team that coordinated the agreement with TEP.

sculptures of athletes inside the machine

Every part of the ball machine was made by hand. The steel track was meticulously shaped and welded together, each miniature model was sculpted to scale and hand-painted, and LED lights were tucked within the miniatures to illuminate them from within.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

"Large institutions like the university that have high demands for energy and other resources are able to leverage that demand to influence decision-making at the local and regional level," Ledbetter said. "It's important to act in that space where we're able to affect the change we're pushing for. This agreement was an exciting first step for the university."

Ledbetter hopes to make a similar change for operations at other university sites, such as the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix and the Sierra Vista campus.

"The systems we've developed to serve the university and community are large-scale but far from campus, so we wanted to provide something that gives people a way to understand that connection, but in a fun and interesting way," said Joe Salkowski, senior director of communications and public affairs for TEP.

"For TEP, this installation symbolizes the steps we're willing to take to help our customers achieve their sustainability goals," said TEP CEO Susan Gray, a UArizona alumna who first started at TEP as an engineering intern. "As a company, we've set ambitious targets on behalf of the community. By 2035, we plan to provide 75% of our power from renewable sources, reducing our carbon emissions by 80%. But we know some of our customers have even more ambitious plans, and we're happy to help the achieve those goals. We're very proud of our partnership with the University of Arizona, a true leader in sustainability in our community."

Another physical demonstration of the agreement on campus are solar panels installed by TEP on the university's Environment and Natural Resources 2 Building. The panels shade a rooftop garden for the ENR2 Rooftop Photovoltaics (PV)+ Project, an experimental education and research site where students can study the co-location of solar panels and plants.

Sometime this fall, TEP will mount another solar panel just south of the university's Albert B. Weaver Science and Engineering Library near the Student Success District, to serve as shade for an outdoor classroom or seating and bike parking.

The partnership with TEP is just one of many sustainability efforts underway at UArizona.

Building upon the success of the TEP agreement, the UArizona Office of Sustainability is launching the process to create the university's first-ever Sustainability and Climate Action Plan. The process is expected to launch in October and will last through fall 2023.