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

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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.

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