UA's Biosphere 2 Will Go Solar, Thanks to SOLON Corp. Gift
Biosphere 2 will use the solar facility not just for power, but for research, education and public demonstration.

By Lori Stiles, University Communications
March 18, 2009

SOLON Corp., a solar panel manufacturing firm that opened its U.S. branch in Tucson last year, has joined forces with The University of Arizona in a major new project that could well trigger greater solar energy use around the state.

SOLON Corp. has donated 470 photovoltaic modules valued at more than $229,000 to provide more than 40 kilowatts of energy to UA's Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2, which is paying for other system components as well as installation costs, will use the solar facility not just for power, but for research, education and as a public demonstration site.

"The SOLON panels will probably power about two-thirds of all of the conference center's energy demands, including 15 residential units in Casita Village, the visitor center, the large conference facilities and the café, so it's going to go a long way toward making our operation more sustainable," said Nathan S. Allen, Biosphere 2's sustainability coordinator.

"When original plans for Biosphere 2 were drawn up more than 25 years ago, plans were to include solar," Allen said. "But until now, it hasn't happened."

"SOLON was very pleased to make this special donation of solar modules possible," said Olaf Koester, president and chief executive officer of SOLON. "Through the ingenuity and talent of the UA's students and researchers, we hope to help Biosphere 2 achieve energy security while protecting the environment."

UA, under the auspices of the College of Science, assumed management of Biosphere 2 in June 2007, when it was awarded a $30 million grant to lease the 34.5 acre Biosphere 2 campus.

The campus includes the unique 7.2-million-cubic-foot, 3.14 acre glass-domed "living laboratory," used for controlled scientific studies of global climate change, water, energy and other environmental grand challenges. The facility is a major regional attraction and public education center.

"It's really significant that, now under UA management and in partnership with SOLON, Biosphere 2 is going solar," Allen said. "We're walking the talk. Biosphere 2 is doing leading research on climate change, and all the research shows that we need to reduce our use of carbon-based energy. This will be significant contribution to reducing that."

The solar energy industry is a young and competitive industry, so most information on how solar technologies perform has been proprietary, Allen noted.

"That SOLON is willing to join with a public university in a project like this shows real leadership on their part," Allen said. "It shows that SOLON is not just committed to its own business, but is committed to the future of solar energy in this region."

The SOLON Corp. views its donation "as a great learning opportunity for Biosphere 2 and part of a long-term relationship we're trying to establish with UA," said William Richardson, research and development director for SOLON Corp. in Tucson and a graduate of UA's electrical engineering program.

"There are a lot of advantages to working with the University and its people, now that we're in Tucson. Where is there more of a brain trust here than at the University?" Richardson said.

B2 Institute director Pierre Meystre and UA associate professor of physics and optical sciences Alexander Cronin sparked the SOLON-Biosphere 2 partnership.

Last December, Meystre asked Cronin to develop a solar test yard at Biosphere 2 similar to Tucson Electric Power's Solar Research Test Yard, located at 4350 E. Irvington Road, where Cronin and his students are monitoring the daily performance of several different types of photovoltaic modules.

The plan to create a Biosphere 2 solar test yard was "a maverick idea to start with, but compelling," Cronin said, because like the TEP test yard, the Biosphere 2 test yard would be a larger-scale facility for field testing solar technologies.

Cronin and Richardson, who already knew each other through their joint interests and projects in solar energy, were soon collaborating on a Biosphere 2 solar test yard.

"The grand challenges for the utilization of solar energy are cost, reliability, efficiency, storage and transmission, or listed that way, a 'crest' of challenges," Cronin said.

"Biosphere 2 offers ideal opportunities to address those solar energy challenges," Meystre said. "But just as important, research here will be conducted in the public eye – Biosphere 2 has well more than 50,000 visitors per year, and therefore unmatched opportunities to educate people about the promises and challenges of solar energy."

Biosphere 2 will construct interpretive exhibits and educational displays, Web sites and on-site demonstrations to inform visitors, teachers, students, scientists, engineers and citizens about solar energy and its practical applications, as well as the latest research and research findings, Meystre said.

"This is hopefully just the first step for us in thinking about sustainability solutions to energy problems," said Biosphere 2 director Travis Huxman. "The investment allows us to extend our research themes of water and energy, from investigating natural ecosystems and landscapes, to similar problems in engineering and societal contexts."

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Travis Huxman



Olaf Koester



Pierre Meystre



Alexander Cronin



William Richardson


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Nathan S. Allen