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
 

Page 4

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."

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