Can solar produce long-lasting jobs?

by Judith Lewis Mernit

Climbing to the top of the observation tower above the Agua Caliente Solar Project takes some nerve. Wind gusts up to 35 miles per hour challenge white-knuckle grips on the railing; the grated steel landings shudder underfoot. At three stories, the tower is just high enough to set off alarms in the acrophobic brain. It is not, however, tall enough to take in how much the developer, First Solar, has altered the landscape. "From here, you can only see where we have glass," says Project Manager Tony Puchta, noting the solar modules already positioned on the ground. "But out there -- see that ridge?" He points to a distant rise on the horizon that on its north side disappears into the desert floor. "Right before it ends, that's the far corner of the project," he says. "It's a little over three miles away."

Three-and-a-half miles, actually. When it's finished in 2014, Agua Caliente, near Dateland in Yuma County, Ariz., will occupy 2,400 acres to produce 290 megawatts that will power roughly 225,000 California homes. If an energy source's footprint were all that mattered, solar, at eight to 10 acres per megawatt, would be inferior to just about every other means of generation, including coal (three acres per megawatt) and nuclear (one-half acre per megawatt).

But Agua Caliente is entirely contained within retired agricultural land, and unlike the previous cotton and alfalfa fields, it will use no water at all -- First Solar's panels don't even need washing. And most residents of Dateland back it. When First Solar Vice President Jim Woodruff showed up two years ago for an initial hearing, a storm knocked out power at the school where he'd planned to speak. Residents volunteered labor and trucks, and moved Woodruff's staff, gear and nearly 100 local participants to a gymnasium 35 miles away. The hearing began two hours late but was filled with enthusiastic supporters, Woodruff remembers.

The reason is simple: Solar plants need manpower, and jobs here are scarce. Yuma County's unemployment rate is close to 24 percent -- more than twice the state's average. At the peak of construction, First Solar employed more than 1,600 at Agua Caliente, 600 of whom lived within a 100-mile radius. For a few months last fall, workers drove in posts and installed racking systems; electricians wired underground fiber optics and cables that connect modules with power conversion stations. Surveyors worked to maintain razor-straight rows.

The plant, which put its first 100 megawatts on the grid in April, has since decreased to a labor force of about 500, mostly in construction and management. In 2014, when First Solar hands the keys to NRG Solar, the New Jersey-based company that will manage the plant, only 16 workers will be needed to keep things running.

But Agua Caliente is expected to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to local and state treasuries in the form of property taxes over the next 25 years or more. And 1,600 jobs are better than nothing, even if they're ephemeral. At the end of 2011, nearly 5,000 Arizonans had jobs in the solar industry, putting the state third behind California and Colorado. Some of those jobs have nothing to do with big solar; they involve installing panels on rooftops. Arizona requires that 30 percent of its renewable energy mix come from nearby sources, so those rooftop jobs might last. But the plant-construction jobs that came in a flurry last year will not.

Gary Dirks, director of the LightWorks solar-technologies initiative at Arizona State University, agrees that the industry is probably not the place to look for improvement in the long-term jobs forecast. "One of the attractions of solar energy is that it just sits there and does what it does," he says. "It doesn't take a lot of maintenance." Then again, neither did the cotton fields. The agricultural operations that survive Arizona's deepening drought have become increasingly mechanized, and at best offer only low-wage seasonal jobs, many of which are gone, never to return. As Dirks points out, "Those jobs turned out to be temporary, too."

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