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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"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."

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