Research partnership between NAU, Salt River Project provides solutions to Arizona’s problems

Teki Sankey with drone

Aug. 12, 2019

What effect do zero-net homes have on the energy grid? What’s the dollar value of a healthy ecosystem, and what does that look like in the ever-changing Southwest? What are the best methods to protect forests from catastrophic fires? How does all of this affect the average resident of the Phoenix area?

These questions, critical in a time of warming climate and a place like Arizona, where healthy land, air and water play an important role in our lives, are at the forefront of a research partnership between Northern Arizona University and the Phoenix-based Salt River Project (SRP), one of the nation’s largest public power utilities. The SRP funds research focusing on applied research activities related to SRP’s core businesses of power and water. The majority of the funded NAU projects have been related to forest health and watershed management, with a few focused on power delivery and residential energy load impacts on the grid.

As the partnership begins its third year, directors Tom Acker, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Ben Ruddell, a professor and director of the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, along with SRP leaders, highlighted the importance of the relationship.

“The NAU-SRP Cooperative Agreement is an important long-term partnership because it brings together the applied research priorities of SRP, the needs of SRP’s customers, the training of advanced students and NAU’s public research university capabilities,” Ruddell said. “This is exactly the sort of partnership that public universities were created to service, with home-grown Arizona expertise and talent serving the public interest of our state’s citizens.”

“This research partnership with NAU has proven to be invaluable as students and faculty work with our engineers to find solutions to real-world problems that could benefit SRP and our customers,” said Alejandra Mendez, a senior research engineer at SRP.

The NAU-SRP partnership completed three projects this year:

  • A study of how to integrate zero-net energy homes and electric vehicles (EVs) with the electrical power grid. Too many net-zero homes and EVs in a single neighborhood may create costs and problems for the power grid, but the use of large batteries can mitigate these problems. Venkata Yaramasu and Truong Nghiem, assistant professors of electrical engineering in SICCS, along with a team of one master’s student and eight undergraduate students, looked at home battery storage and ways to prepare infrastructure that can handle the increasing number of ZNE homes and lead to more renewable energy generation in the state, including SRP’s service territory.
  • SICCS assistant professor Temuulen “Teki” Sankey used drones to measure how thinning the forest led to increased snow accumulation and soil moisture. This can contribute to the ecosystem’s ability to survive drought and can increase the forest’s yield of high-quality water that fills SRP’s reservoir’s downstream. Her work supports one Ph.D. student.
  • Mixed conifer forests, which cover millions of acres of the western U.S., are critical for healthy ecosystem function and for human life, including clean water, providing timber resources, wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities. Associate professor of forestry Andrew Sanchez Meador and David Huffman, director of research and development at the Ecological Restoration Institute (ERI) investigated how tree density can best be managed to improve overall forest health and ensure that freshwater continues flowing to SRP’s customers in a potentially warmer and drier future Arizona climate.
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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications