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State Casts Shadow On Bright ASU Project

Last winter, a handful of Arizona State University engineering undergrads and a couple of professors slaved for weeks on a proposal for a solar-powered dream machine they named the "Sundevil Suncruiser."

When the ASU team beat out dozens of other schools from across the country, you'd think state legislators would have been delighted to pay for the $180,000 project. But by slashing funds for solar-energy research and development, they essentially nixed state funding for the Sundevil Suncruiser.

The team, known as the "Arizona Horizon Project," was thrilled when General Motors announced in April that ASU had finally made the solar-energy big leagues. Along with 31 other schools (including MIT, Cal Poly, Stanford, and Dartmouth), ASU had beaten out dozens of universities by qualifying to design, build and race a solar car in GM's "Sunrayce USA," an 1,800-mile extravaganza scheduled for the summer of 1990.

Sunrayce, which begins at Florida's EPCOT Center and ends in Warren, Michigan, won't attract the fans that flock to, say, the Indy 500. These little collegiate roadsters on dirt-bike wheels will be rolling along at a top speed of maybe 35 mph. Even so, in the rarefied world of renewable-~resource technology, Sunrayce is the most exciting auto race of the year--a chance for the nation's top engineering students to show off their solar savvy.

The irony, of course, is that the Arizona State Legislature decided not to fund a project that gives ASU some much-needed academic prestige and focuses on a clean, renewable energy source that's abundant in Arizona.

What really rattles Byard Wood, the ASU professor who advises the team, is that this is the one year politicos had extra money--$24.5 million in the so-called "Exxon Fund"--to dole out to energy projects. The fund, which was the legislature's best-kept secret this past session, was a little pot of gold resulting from a recent federal-court decision ordering several oil companies that overcharged Arizonans during the Seventies to repay the state. What's more, the Exxon fund must be spent on "energy-related" programs, federal law says.

This spring, the governor-appointed Solar Energy Advisory Council and the state Solar Energy Office both suggested that about $5.2 million of the Exxon fund be spent on solar projects during the next five years. Instead, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC), which controls the Exxon fund, slashed solar research by $3 million and funneled an extra $3.6 million into a program that pays utility bills for poor people--a project that clearly benefits utility companies as well as poor people.

Thanks to the legislature, solar energy will probably get only $2.6 million in Exxon dollars over the next five years, and all of that has been earmarked for already well-established projects like the Solar Oasis in downtown Phoenix.

JLBC director Ted Ferris says he's sorry the Sundevil Suncruiser is out of luck, but defends the budget committee's decision. "There just wasn't enough money," he says, adding that paying the utility bills of poor people keeps them from sinking into the "homeless situation." What's more, says Ferris, the budgeteers slashed solar development and research because they wanted to keep half of the Exxon fund available for short-term energy-related loans. He suggests the ASU team look into borrowing the money. "We don't have any collateral," responds an agitated Professor Wood, who also happens to be a member of the governor's solar advisory council. Wood tells New Times he even trekked down to the capitol in late May to attend the budget committee hearing on the Exxon fund, hoping to have a say about how the money was spent. He recalls angrily that even though he was the first to register to speak at the hearing, John Wettaw, the Flagstaff Republican who chairs the committee, refused to allow Wood to talk while "some people got to speak twice." (Wettaw did not return repeated telephone calls from New Times.)

"I went away very discouraged by a legislative process that didn't even allow open debate," says Wood, who stresses he's not speaking for the school. "That $24 million package did not receive the appropriate review you would expect in a political process. There was no opportunity for open discussion. I had the feeling that this was a done deal. The way the JLBC exercised its power is an example of why Arizona is not a leader in solar energy."

Because Wood returned to the campus empty-handed, he and the Sundevil Suncruiser kids had to figure out Plan B, pronto. They're telephoning local industries, hoping to solicit sponsorships. But so far, the only donation they've obtained is tubing from Reynolds Aluminum. And the $7,000 in "seed money" that GM and the U.S. Department of Energy donated to their cause in April is almost gone.

The first model of the Sundevil Suncruiser has yet to be built, because there's no money to buy the expensive materials. All that the students have managed to put together is a triangular aluminum frame.

Despite the setbacks, Wood says ASU will enter the Sunrayce. "We're trying to develop a technology for the 21st century," he says. "The Exxon fund would have made it a little easier, but I'm sure somehow we're gonna make it."

Surprisingly, the ASU students don't appear to be terribly upset by the legislature's parsimony. Alain Chuzel, a senior who is a passionate solar devotee, says he's just come to expect that, when it comes to things like solar technology, Arizonans are simply "nonvisionary."