In this five-year project, Nevada Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NV-EPSCoR) addresses critical practical problems of relevance to large-scale solar installations in arid desert lands. The project combines research on solar thermal energy generation with the understanding of eco-hydrological impacts of solar installation in desert regions to advance the economic and eco-friendly viability of solar electricity generation. This combination distinguishes this project from several other existing solar energy projects, thus making it a unique model study of relevance to Nevada and other solar installations in the US and around the world. The major participating institutions in this project are: the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of Nevada Desert Research Institute. Faculty and students from the College of Southern Nevada, Truckee Meadows Community College, and Nevada State College will also be engaged in this project.
Intellectual Merit Despite plentiful sunlight and cloud-free days which are conducive for solar energy collection, arid regions experience frequent dust storms and receive little or no rain. Dust accumulated on solar panels absorb sunlight and decrease the efficiency of solar cells; water scarcity increases the cost of meeting the cooling needs of solar thermal collectors. This project seeks to develop engineering/technological solutions to repel dust and minimize water usage in large solar installations. In addition, it examines the desert ecosystem responses and provides science-based information for designing effective ways to manage and mitigate environmental impacts associated with large-scale solar installations. The award establishes a research facility, called the Nevada Environment, Water, and Solar Testing and Research Facility (NEW-STAR) during this project. Enhancements to the existing cyberinfrastructure capabilities are effected through the creation of the Nevada Research Data Center (NRDC) for data management and communication. These new facilities promote collaboration among teams of interdisciplinary scientists and engineers on solar-energy-water-environment nexus research and education theme.
Broader Impacts This project has the potential to develop less costly and thus more competitive solar electricity generation techniques aimed at minimizing both water usage and environmental degradation. The technological solutions to be developed are applicable to other solar energy installations nationally and globally. Interactions among scientists and collaboration at regional, national, and international levels as well as partnerships with energy industry and environmental agencies in Nevada are expected to promote economic development in the state. The project involves 41 faculty, 24 technicians, 43 graduate students, and 38 undergraduate students as participants. The project offers the following programs aimed at pre-college and undergraduate students with a focus to attract underrepresented minority groups, K-12 teachers, and the general public: (1) Pre-college bridging programs to assist K-12 students to develop academic skills and career pathways; (2) Undergraduate research opportunity programs (UROP) to provide research experience at the solar energy-water-environment nexus; (3) Undergraduate and graduate hands-on training (HOT) to facilitate transition from student to professional; activities include industry internships and laboratory experiences in solar energy technology, and proposal writing workshops; (4) Teacher professional development programs that engage K-12 teachers in research, field work, and working with graduate students; (5) programs to educate K-12 students on project related themes and inform their families of opportunities for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers; and (6) Online learning laboratories, which provide wireless access to cyber learning materials and enhance public understanding of solar energy and related impacts on water and environment.