The fading Arizona town of Gila Bend bets big on solar

by Judith Lewis Mernit

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.

Building big solar plants on southwestern Arizona's old farmland appeals to more than conservationists. As Abengoa was staking out its solar parcel, Frederick Buss was winding up his work as city manager of Maricopa, Ariz., where the real estate market was collapsing, and heading to Gila Bend as the new town manager. His friends were incredulous. "People said, ‘Why are you applying out there? There's nothing there,' " Buss remembers. "But I'd started to study the area, and I thought ‘You know what? There's a real opportunity here, an opportunity to do something sustainable.' "

Buss works out of the town hall on Pima Street, a flat ochre structure marginally more durable than a Quonset hut. Just inside the door to the left is an earnest hodgepodge of artifacts one might generously call a museum, where disorderly exhibits commemorate Gila Bend's place in history's footnotes: In 1846, the Mormon Battalion marched along the Gila River on its way to defend California against Mexico, 500 well-armed men who in the end fought only one battle -- against a herd of wild Arizona bulls. Two years later, the Oatman family took an ill-advised shortcut along the river, where they met up with Yavapai Indians, who killed most of the family but kept two daughters, one of whom went on to live quite contentedly among the Mohave Indians. When the first locomotive came through in 1877, Gila Bend's destiny was set: This is the kind of place you pass through, not one where you settle down.

Knowing that, and knowing that town managers come and go in rural towns, I had pictured Buss as a man of prominent girth, a whiff of cigar smoke, maybe even suspenders. On the phone he sounded rough-edged and brusque, a manner I interpreted as the weariness of a bureaucrat trapped in a dead-end job in a nearly uninhabitable desert.

Instead, Rick Buss turned out to be bright-eyed and fit at 43, with a full head of light-brown hair. In person the gravel in his voice turned to barely restrained enthusiasm, a sort of co-conspiratorial whisper. His office, a spare room abuzz with fluorescent lights, overflowed with plans and ideas, scrawled in block letters on every available surface. I asked him about "solar bees," a phrase jotted on a wallboard. "Solar bees are cool!" he exclaimed –– they're small pumps that help circulate water and make aerators much more efficient in water treatment plants that oxygenate as part of their cleansing process.

Sustainability nerds obsess religiously about pumps, which by some estimates consume as much as 30 percent of the world's energy -- much of it wasted. "We put two solar bees out in our wastewater treatment facility," Buss said, suddenly animated. "It's reduced our energy consumption out there 50 percent."

Buss didn't come straight out of college fixated on the power consumption of small machines. His ideals have evolved over the course of his career and concurrent education. In 2005, while working for the city of Maricopa, he earned a master's degree in public administration from Arizona State University, a mecca of forward-looking policy thought. At the same time, he was observing in real life a dizzying example of unsustainable growth.

"When I got to Maricopa in 2003, it was a town of 5,000," Buss said. "A year later it was 15,000, and two years after that there were 40,000. At one point we were moving in three people an hour." By 2008, everything was spinning in reverse, like a tightly wound coil that now had no choice but to snap back. Foreclosures were happening almost at the pace that growth had before, and Maricopa was featured in an ABC News show called "Poster Child for the Housing Crisis."

Gila Bend, meanwhile, had actually shrunk since the '80s. The economic plan an earlier town council had designed, based on a housing rush that never materialized, left the place a blank slate for another vision. And there was plenty of land: Just beyond Pima Street's little strip sprawl the remnants of a historic agricultural operation called the Paloma Ranch, 100,000 acres with access to water from the Gila River on its northern boundary, and rights to pump from the ground. Much of the land had already been flattened, making it easier for developers to construct level rows of mirrors and panels. Any local wildlife had long since adapted to human disturbance. No one would object to developing it. Buss thought Gila Bend had all the raw material to become a green-industry hub.

"We have an airport here and we have a railroad here," he told me. "We have great connectivity on the vehicular side," meaning there's an east-west interstate freeway and a major north-south highway. "We're even on the Canamex corridor," a truck-and-tourist traffic route that runs from Montana to Arizona, established under the North American Free Trade Agreement as a "high-priority" system. A regenerative revolution in southwestern Arizona could boost the entire U.S. domestic economy, he argued, extending west to California electricity consumers and east to photovoltaic manufacturers in Ohio.

During his first year in Gila Bend, Buss returned to ASU and got a graduate certificate in sustainable technology and management, along with an arsenal of freshly hatched theories about how societies work. From Gary Dirks, a former oil executive who now heads "Light Works," the school's solar business program, he took the concept of marketing "green electrons." The school's president, Michael Crow, talked about creating a "photon society," in which sunlight serves as the foundation of an entire economy, the way oil does in some countries. Sunlight produces electricity from photovoltaic cells and solar thermal collectors; it's also essential to growing algae, from which it's possible to create a near-zero-impact biofuel -- the only biofuel where "the inputs and outputs really make sense." Algae "consumes two-and-a-half times its weight in carbon-dioxide, and you don't even have to treat the water" you grow it in, Buss told me.

"We're actively seeking out folks that can take biofuels from thousands of gallons to millions of gallons. That translates from 20 dollars a gallon in your gas tank to about three dollars."

But it's still industrial solar -- both concentrating solar plants like Solana and massive fields of photovoltaic panels -- that holds the key to Buss' dream of economic renewal. He insisted that solar development could eventually generate thousands of local jobs in engineering, construction and management, attracting a new population that can then bolster restaurants, retail and hotel industries. Yes, he admitted, many solar-construction jobs are fleeting (see sidebar, this page), but "the idea is to stack the construction jobs and create almost a decade-long construction cycle." He could see ramping up to 10,000 megawatts of power within the 71-square-mile incorporated limits of Gila Bend. Construction workers will augment ongoing personnel who stay here to operate the plants, and by that time the economic engine will have enough momentum to stay in motion.

When I talked to Buss on a 110-degree late September afternoon, three solar plants were under way in or near Gila Bend: the 17-megawatt Paloma plant, a field of 275,000 photovoltaic panels that Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar was developing for the utility Arizona Public Service (APS); Cotton Center, an 18-megawatt project built by Tucson-based Solon, also for APS; and Abengoa's Solana, which will sell all of its 280-megawatt capacity to APS as well. All have been built on degraded, once-farmed land. And all had happened, by industry standards, with impressive speed. "First Solar's vice president, Jim Woodruff, said to me that he can't get a plant built faster anywhere else in the world," Buss says. "And that includes dictatorships."

That efficiency has been enhanced by a process Gila Bend's economic planning director, Eric Fitzer, helped develop for Gary Smith, a Phoenix-based developer and contractor who grew up in nearby Stanfield. In 1998, Smith and his brother, Mike, teamed with other investors to buy the Paloma property, and then began selling it off piece by piece. Several parcels went to dairy farms, another to a tree nursery. But the largest chunk went to future housing ventures, including one 10,000-acre parcel upon which the Merrill-Paloma Ranch Corp. planned to build a high-density mixed-use development replete with schools, parks and grocery stores. That project never broke ground: After the housing crisis, Merrill-Paloma went bankrupt. And Smith started hearing from renewable energy developers who wanted to develop the land instead.

Residential-to-energy was not an easy shift. On paper at least, Arizona has laws that require cities, towns and counties to submit zoning plans to voters for approval, and file them with the state. They can't be easily rewritten just because one industry fails and another rises in its place. Smith needed a way around the restrictions, a zoning plan specifically tailored to the needs of a fledging industry that might not stick. "I wanted the right to develop the land for solar," Smith says. "But I also wanted to know that one year later I could revert back to my original zoning."

So Smith went to Fitzer and Buss. "We looked at this situation and said, ‘Why are they making solar development so difficult?' " Buss says. " ‘It's not like they're building a chemical plant or anything like that.' And then Eric came in and said, ‘I got an idea. A Solar Field Overlay Zone.' "

Fitzer is 31 years old, with close-cut black hair and a thin shadow of beard. He is tall and lanky, like a teenager who hasn't quite filled out. Like Buss, he graduated from ASU, where he majored in urban planning and interned at a law firm specializing in real estate. "My job was to research every single municipal zoning ordinance and tear it apart," he says. "To find all the loopholes for our lawyers to make it through the process." After he graduated, he went to work for Maricopa at the height of the boom.

"I was right out of college," Fitzer remembers, "and I walked into an enormous backlog of work. It was like, ‘Here's 10 master-planned communities with 2,000 homes each. We need ordinances, so have at it!' So I started writing ordinances. Lots and lots of ordinances. I got really good at writing ordinances."

A year after Buss left Maricopa for Gila Bend, he lured Fitzer away as well. Fitzer was happy to leave. "I liked the idea of coming into a brand-new community, or a community that's been very small for years, and trying, on different terms, to give it a jumpstart," he says, snapping his fingers. "When I started looking at it -- the transportation infrastructure, the airport, the solar industry starting up -- I thought, you know what? We can do something better. With my affinity for writing ordinances, I came up with an ordinance."

The Solar Field Overlay Zone, or SFOZ, marks an area that has been deemed appropriate for solar development, but is not reserved for it. "(The SFOZ) just sits on top of the zoning that was already there," Fitzer says. "If the land was previously zoned residential and the solar development doesn't work out, another developer can still build houses on that land."

"Everyone who's developed here since Rick and Eric came in loves them," Smith says. And other communities have started to mimic their model. Last summer, Fitzer met with government officials in Boulder City, Nev., where a similar renewable energy hub is in progress. He's been helping the town manager of nearby Buckeye, Ariz., Stephen Cleveland, develop a renewable energy plan. "Stephen has some solar ambitions as well," Fitzer says. "He's looking at ways to streamline permitting."

"We're not competitive with other cities," Buss says. "When you stop trying to hoard your own food, you realize that if everyone puts their food together, you all have a lot more food. That's part of sustainability for us."

"The SFOZ has worked out so well for us," Fitzer says. "So now we're looking at what else we can streamline. How can we renew and regenerate this community –– create a boom? How can we make Gila Bend the place you go to build your green business?"

One way, he imagines, is to spread the word that if you come to Gila Bend, your business can be solar-powered. "We're starting to market our green electrons to companies that are very concerned about their ‘triple bottom line,' " Fitzer tells me, invoking a calculus that sustainability expert John Elkington developed in the early 1990s to rank human satisfaction and planetary ethics on the same scale as profit. Companies including FedEx and New Belgium Brewing have adopted Elkington's "three Ps" -- people, planet and profit -- and Buss and Fitzer include those principles in proposals to regional economic development partnerships. They also tout the 315 megawatts of solar power they hope to have on the grid by 2014.

ASU's Dirks himself acknowledges that this approach is brand-new -- and untested. But with Gila Bend's solar assets, he says, "Rick and Eric are well positioned to try it." And he likes how they've gone about it so far. "On one hand, they're thinking about how to make their community an attractive place for investors to come. But they're aware they're committing large pieces of land, and that has consequences." Triple-bottom-line company executives have to be sure the town management has addressed those land-use concerns responsibly. The Solar Field Overlay Zone has been key to that.

"They've made (solar development) a straightforward process," Dirks says, "and they're doing a very professional job."

In order for Buss and Fitzer's dreams to come true, one important thing has to happen: The demand for green electrons produced here has to go up. That means that either the Arizona Corporation Commission, an elected body of five officials, needs to raise the state's renewable energy portfolio standard, mandating that a higher percentage of renewable energy figures into each state utility's mix. Or else California has to start buying up a whole lot more power from its neighbor (see sidebar, page 18). Preferably both.

Arizona's renewable energy portfolio standard was set in 2008 at 15 percent by 2025 under a decidedly pro-solar commissioner, Kristin Mayes. That's low compared with other states -- California requires 33 percent by 2020, Colorado, 30 percent by 2020 -- but barring a sharp detour from Arizona's march to become the most regressive state in the nation, no one will raise it. Republicans in the state Legislature have even tried to roll back the standard in imaginative ways. In 2010, State Rep. Debbie Lesko from the Phoenix suburb of Glendale proposed folding nuclear into the renewable energy mix; that would mean that, with its three-gigawatt Palo Verde Nuclear Plant, the state was already far past meeting its goals. Gov. Jan Brewer diplomatically strong-armed her into dropping the initiative, fearing that it would scare away foreign investors. (Abengoa, for example, will pay Arizona close to $400 million in taxes over Solana's 30-year life.)

But Lesko hasn't given up. More recently, she pushed a bill through the House to strip the Corporation Commission of its authority to set a renewable energy standard at all, arguing that the costs of wind and solar put a strain on the ratepayers whom legislators are sworn to protect. Some critics believe that Lesko's bill goes against the state Constitution; tellingly, the current head of the commission, Greg Gary Pierce, does not.

Which means Arizona won't be clamoring for more clean energy anytime soon. "It appears that the volume of renewable energy that the utilities are buying in Arizona is starting to drop," says John King, executive vice president of LS Power, an energy company that recently secured $550 million in private investment and bank loans for a 125-megawatt photovoltaic plant in Arlington Valley, 40 miles north of Gila Bend. "I think they've procured a lot of what they need to."

Ted Geisler, manager of the solar program at APS, confirms that the utility is "the majority of the way" to getting enough renewable power to meet upcoming targets, including voluntary consumer demand (APS offers a "green choice" rate on electricity bills). When Solana comes online in 2013, the utility will have little use for more large-scale solar. Nor will Arizona's other large utility, the Salt River Project, which as a nonprofit cooperative isn't subject to the state law at all.

That leaves the California option, for which there is hope, not least because the planned build-out of solar in the California Mojave has not gone as well as some predicted back in 2005, when the Energy Policy Act first called for 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015. That's in part because the desert that energy experts and developers once viewed as a wasteland waiting for the redemption of renewable energy turned out to be inhabited, not just by wildlife but by living human beings. And some of them had strong feelings about looking out onto acres of mirrored tubes and photovoltaic fields, as well as the depleting of their aquifers to cool plants and wash panels.

Public land comes relatively cheap: The Bureau of Land Management charges an annual rental fee of somewhere around $100 to $300 per acre, depending on the exact location, plus a few thousand dollars per megawatt, depending on the size of the plant and the technology involved. But developing on public land has increasingly involved contentious public meetings and protracted legal battles. The Oakland, Calif.-based company BrightSource Energy, sued twice by wildlife conservation groups over its 370-megawatt tortoise-trampling Ivanpah solar plant, has had to scale back plans and twice halt construction due to environmental conflicts. The endangered Mohave ground squirrel took down a concentrating solar project German developer Solar Millennium had proposed near the Mojave city of Ridgecrest, Calif.

Solar Millennium also had to broker a tough deal with the BLM over water use at its Amargosa Farm Road project, a proposed concentrating solar thermal plant in Nevada near the Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge, where the mysterious desert pupfish struggles to hang on as its water supply warms and dwindles. In the end, the BLM insisted that the plant use air instead of water for cooling -- that it  condense steam to liquid using desert air -- which makes solar plants far less efficient. Federal land managers have insisted upon dry cooling, however, in the California and Nevada deserts.

Southwestern Arizona, with its vast acres of contiguous, privately owned and already trashed old farmland with water rights attached, offers an alternative to all that (see sidebar, page 20). Building on private land, even in Gila Bend, is far more expensive than leasing public land, at least in terms of the initial capital outlay. But Kate Maracas, Abengoa's vice president of operations in Arizona, attests that Solana, despite the high initial price tag -- the land alone cost upwards of $45 million -- has suffered no construction delays, no surprise wildlife appearances, and only one procedural holdup, when Abengoa's construction engineers needed access to a berm on federal land just outside the plant's property line. Maracas had to get the BLM to check a box and sign it. That took a year.

The trick now is to find a way to connect southwestern Arizona's ideal solar land with green-electron-hungry California. LS Power's John King says his company's Arlington Valley project, which has a deal to sell power to Southern California-based Sempra Energy, was lucky enough to snatch some of the last space on transmission lines that will carry electrons to the Hacienda substation in western Arizona, which connects up with the California grid. "But those lines are pretty full now," he says. "I'm not sure how much more (they) can carry."

Asked what they consider the stiffest obstacle in their plans for Gila Bend, Buss and Fitzer answer in unison: "Transmission." Electricity travels from generation source to consumer along lines strung across 150-foot towers that buzz day and night with their 500-kilovolt load; building them provokes thorny political and environmental conflicts, as well as questions about who benefits and who pays. Southern California Edison, for example, once planned to add a second line to existing transmission that connects a substation in western Arizona to one near Palm Springs, Calif. But in 2007, the Arizona Corporation Commission dismissed the plan as a "230-mile extension cord into Arizona" that would come at great expense to Arizona's economy and quality of life. (A 24-mile segment of the line would have crossed through a long-established refuge for bighorn sheep.) In 2011, the California utility began constructing a truncated segment of the line that ends near the Arizona border.

It's also possible that the solar boom, such as it is, has peaked, and that any project that hasn't already attracted outside investors has little hope of getting off the ground in the next few years. LS Power's John King admits that his company is struggling to find customers to plug into a second Arlington Valley plant he'd hoped to have in construction by now. Solar Millennium, once a major player in the solar industry, returned a $2.1 billion loan guarantee to the Energy Department last September, and in February filed for bankruptcy in German court. Most of the firm's projects-in-process have been sold to other developers.

Industrial solar firms are also suffering from cuts to federal support programs. Four of Arizona's large solar fields, including Solana, have been backed by a special Energy Department guaranteed loan program called Section 1705, after its location in the 2005 Energy Act. The 1705 program used stimulus funds to pay the million-plus dollar administrative costs associated with billion-dollar loans, a perk that mattered greatly to smallish developers taking risks on big solar farms. The Obama administration wanted to continue the program past its Sept. 30, 2011, end date with a $200 million boost. But then came Solyndra -- the high-tech photovoltaic company that declared bankruptcy last August, with a $500 million Section 1705 loan on the line. It was a failure so ill-timed that a conspiracy theorist might venture that it was a setup.

Another program that turned tax credits into up-front grants, crucial to startup companies that may not turn an immediate profit, expired in early February. There is little hope of renewing it in the current Congress.

None of this makes Rick Buss happy, especially not his own state's reluctance to expand the domestic renewable energy market. "It is what it is," he tells me. But he also believes there's a way around it.  "What we're telling people to do is to look beyond the standard," he says. "If you're a fossil fuel energy company, are you an oil company, a gas company or an energy company? Do you blend renewable energy into your portfolio or do you rely on oil and gas, which you know is not going to last forever?

"Energy is energy," Buss says. "And in Arizona we have the ability to provide energy. It's that simple."

Two solar plants, Paloma and Cotton Center, came online in Gila Bend in December and January. "We're providing about 34 megs of power to the grid, and have for three or four of months," Buss says. So far, all of it goes to APS, but on Feb. 7, Buss met with several utilities, Energy Department officials and energy companies to launch the Gila Bend Transmission Initiative, a consortium he hopes will expedite the power lines southwestern Arizona so desperately needs to market its energy.

"We have four conceptual lines that we've come up with. We're doing a corridor study to determine which routes have the least environmental impact." Buss and his allies would like to reduce the time it takes to build new transmission. "We're trying to get it down to three to five years," he says. "Right now, it takes 10."

And five years is not that long if you believe, like Buss does, that the photon society is inevitable. "Eric and I are not sitting here saying that Arizona should be entirely solar powered," he says. "We realize that we're a society powered by coal and gas and nuclear. And solar is not like this magic pill that will solve all of our problems.

"But we also think there's an optimal blend of solar into our energy mix," he says. "When we figure out what it is, it will revive this region." 

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