rom Tempe to Tucson, solar power investments are transforming the energy landscape of Arizona.
“We are continuing to invest in a variety of alternative energy projects, but most notably in solar energy,” says David Bentler, manager of community and economic development for Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric company. “We will buy 260 megawatts [MW] of power from a thermal-solar plant that will come on line next year. That is a unique plant that Abengoa Solar is building 70 miles [112 km.] southwest of Phoenix near Gila Bend, and we will take all of its power for the next 20 years.”
Abengoa received a $1.45-billion federal loan guarantee from the U.S. government for its project, called Solana, which is going neck-and-neck with another Arizona solar investment for the title of world’s largest solar power plant.
The project giving Solana a run for its money is First Solar’s Agua Caliente solar plant in Yuma. On Sept. 10, Agua Caliente achieved 250 MW of grid-connected power, making it the world’s largest operating photovoltaic power plant. Upon buildout in 2014, Agua Caliente will have a generating capacity of 290 MW, while Solana should peak at 280 MW sometime next year.
“We are always looking at other plants,” says Bentler. “We have some smaller PV plants that are on line now, and we have RFPs out for another 30 megawatts of solar power.
An Array of Arrays
Tucson is also becoming a thriving solar energy market.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently awarded a $5.7-million grant to the Tucson Airport Authority to fund the design and construction of the first phase of a project that, upon completion, will install a 20-foot-tall (6-m.) solar array over the entire main public parking lot in front of the terminal. The entire three-phase project is estimated to cost $18 million and take up to three years to complete.
“We have been working on this project for quite a while,” says Mary Davis, senior director of business development and marketing for the Tucson Airport Authority. “This new solar array will save us about $100,000 a year in airport energy costs.”
Also in Tucson, AstroSol recently dedicated a new 38-acre (15.3-hectare) solar array at the Solar Zone at UA TechPark. AstroSol will own and operate the 6.1-MW solar PV facility using thin-film silicon modules from Astronergy of Hangzhou, China. The power generated from this plant will be sold to Tucson Electric Power and distributed to the metro area of Tucson.
“This project was fast-tracked to show that we can be a leader in providing solar energy to electricity customers in the Tucson area,” says Laura Shaw, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc. “And that’s not the only solar power project we are doing.”
Another is REhnu, a spinoff from the University of Arizona’s world-renowned astronomy program. Now under construction, REhnu revolves around a solar-energy system designed by UA astronomy professor Roger Angel. His design uses mirrors to focus and concentrate sunlight up to 1,200 times on a spherical lens, which transmits it onto ultra-high-efficiency photovoltaic cells. The 5-acre (2-hectare) site has room for 42 systems producing a total of 840 kilowatts.
Also in the Tucson area, NRG Solar plans to build a 25-MW solar energy facility in Avra Valley, says Shaw. “Projects like these are really accelerating the economic recovery in our part of the state,” she notes.
Elsewhere in Arizona, Nest Energy Systems in Prescott Valley is producing a lightweight solar-powered lighting system that is used by the U.S. military for security lighting.
“Department of Defense agencies are using these systems,” says Gary Marks, executive director of the Prescott Valley Economic Development Foundation. “They announced a $1.6-million capital investment, and they are adding nine new jobs with this expansion.”
Bentler of APS says the activity in the solar sector is not expected to slow down anytime soon in Arizona. “As a matter of fact, we are chasing some very big solar projects right now,” he adds. “We are still seeing a lot of interest from solar companies and other renewable energy firms. Several more large projects will land here shortly.”