The fading Arizona town of Gila Bend bets big on solar

  • Workers at the Agua Caliente Solar Project install some of the three-and-a-half miles' worth of panels near Dateland, Arizona, about 50 miles west of Gila Bend.

    First Solar
  • Frederick "Rick" Buss, town manager of Gila Bend at the Cotton Center solar field on the edge of town, just one of the projects he's been instrumental in bringing to the area.

    Chris Hinkle
  • A few of the more than 3,200 mirrored parabolic trough collectors being built at Abengonda's Solana Plant near Gila Bend

    Dennis Schroeder photos, NREL
  • The enormous tanks that hold the molten salts, which can keep the solar-heated fluids very hot even when the sun isn't shining.

    Dennis Schroeder photos, NREL
  • Eric Fitzer, planning and economic development director for Gila Bend, stands among the transmission lines within the city limits. Transmission is a key part of the equation, as Gila Bend increases its solar production and tries to sell the power, both instate and to neighboring California.

    Chris Hinkle
  • Downtown Gila Bend, Arizona, and some of its quirkier landmarks.

    Hane C. Lee, cc via Flickr
  • Downtown Gila Bend, Arizona, and some of its quirkier landmarks.

    Hane C. Lee, cc via Flickr
 

One afternoon last April, I took a walk down Pima Street, the main drag that runs through Gila Bend, Ariz., linking the state highway from Phoenix with Interstate 8 to Yuma and beyond. It had been an unusual spring in the Southwestern deserts; abundant late-season rains spread carpets of green across rocky hillsides in the Mojave Desert, which spans much of southern California and Nevada as well as nibbles of Utah and Arizona. And valleys in the Colorado Desert -- the California portion of the Sonoran -- turned gold with the blooms of long-dormant plants. Here in the Arizona Sonoran, it was a spectacular day: Clear and crisp, with a warm wind stripping clouds from the sky.

And still the town itself looked dismal and sad. On the two-mile stretch between Love's gaudy gas station and the weird flying saucer hovering over the Best Western Space Age Lodge, I counted 11 battered and boarded-up buildings, including a laundromat, a convenience store and a motel, renovated in 2003 in anticipation of a housing boom that never happened -- another wave of renewal that dissipated a few miles short of Gila Bend. A dark-haired teenage girl and her Brylcreemed boyfriend sprawled in a languorous make-out session on the patch of lawn outside the Best Western, secure in their privacy. I was the only one on the street to observe them.

Almost since the Hohokam people all but disappeared from here some 600 years ago, Gila Bend has been a sacrifice zone, a place where any activity, no matter how destructive, toxic or fleeting, has been welcome. Hazardous waste incinerators have come and gone and left behind their poisons; smoky gas-fired power plants chug pollutants into the air. Indeed, Gila Bend's last true revival happened in 1942, when the Gila Bend Auxiliary Air Field became a training hub for troops headed to desert battlefields, and the town's population grew 300 percent -- to nearly 2,000. (England's Prince Harry trained on the field last year, and was warned by Mayor Ron Henry to refrain from "fornicating" with local girls.)

In the 1950s, the pink bollworm arrived in the region's cotton fields, and federal authorities fought it with clouds of DDT. The bollworm mutated and stayed; the DDT left the Gila River so poisoned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the reservoir behind Painted Rock Dam just west of town a health hazard and banned humans from its waters.

Cotton remains a mainstay of the local economy, but a faltering one, vulnerable to price fluctuations and competition with other countries' exports. Plus, southwestern Arizona is running out of groundwater; cones of depression have formed where agriculture has pumped too much for too long. But in all of human existence, it will never, ever run out of sun: Parts of southwestern Arizona rival the high Mojave in what engineers call "insolation" (short for INcoming SOlar radiATION).

I had come to this outpost in eastern Maricopa County, 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, because so many people had told me it was a rational place to put utility-scale solar projects. I had spent years covering California's Mojave, where gigantic solar farms on public lands have biologists worried about lost habitat, depleted groundwater, even the desert's precious crust, a soil so packed with mysteries that scientists call it "cryptobiotic" -- the soil of hidden life. Conservationist locals have gone to battle against national environmental leaders pushing Big Solar; Native American leaders have sued green entrepreneurs for disturbing sacred sites and relics. Every single solar plant slated for the California Mojave since 2008 has been hit with some kind of lawsuit.

But in the Sonoran Desert around and about Gila Bend, none of that seems to matter; there's no risk here of killing tortoises, destroying viewsheds or drying up critical seeps. The spring I first visited the town, the Spanish developer Abengoa had cleared five square miles along the interstate where farmers once grew alfalfa. Workers had already started to build the Solana Generating Station, a concentrating solar thermal plant that will one day power 70,000 Arizona homes.

Solana, once finished, will produce electricity using a gantlet of long mirrored troughs that focus the sun's energy on a fluid; the fluid then flashes to gas and spins a turbine. It needs water to condense that gas back to liquid again, but only a tenth of what the alfalfa field did. It is, as a result, one of those rare desert places where 3,000 acres of mirrored tubes actually looks quite beautiful. And, to some people fighting for the future of this neglected town, they also look like hope -- provided politics and the economy don't get in the way.

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