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 5

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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