solar in Arizona
largest power utility, APS, has now thrown the switch on 34 MW of new
solar power generation, and both projects are located in the town of
Gila Bend's new Solar Overlay Zone, which has been designated as an
area for fast-tracking the permitting of new solar photovoltaic
Solar power is continuingto grow significantly in the U.S. Southwest.
One of the best examples of that growth is the first phase of
Arizona Public Service's (APS) $500 million AZ Sun Program. APS, the
state's largest utility, has thrown the switch on the first 34
megawatts (MWs) of new solar power generation for its customers, which
is part of its goal to produce 100 megawatts by 2014.
Driven by the state's renewable energy standard (RES) objectives and
APS customer demand, the AZ Sun Program will ultimately bring six APS
solar projects into production. The first two, which recently started
production, are the 17 MW Paloma Solar Power Plant and the 17 MW Cotton
Center Solar Power Plant. They are located in close proximity to each
other in Gila Bend, 70 miles southwest of Phoenix.
While both projects tap into the power generating capability of the
sun—which not surprisingly shines nearly every day of the
year in Arizona's arid climate—they feature different
technology and deliver different attributes to APS's daily power
The Paloma facility consists of 275,000 thin-film
photovoltaic panels mounted on fixed-tilt steel supports with SMA
inverters while the Cotton Center facility uses polycrystalline panels
mounted on a single-axis tracking system. It consists of 93,000 solar
panels arranged in preconfigured one-megawatt fields designed to help
utilities quickly scale to capacity.
The site also incorporates developer SOLON's single-axis trackers and
SCADA system for remote control and tracking.
The Paloma facility will peak in its power production daily when the
sun shines directly on the panels while the Cotton Center facility will
produce power at a more consistent daily rate as the panels track the
"Interestingly, if you look at the amount of megawatt hours produced at
the end of each year, they both produce nearly the same," says Ted
Geisler APS AZ Sun Program manager. "They both offer a bit of a
different curve of energy production, but at the end of each year, they
produce the same amount."
The other four projects at various stages of approval and construction
as part of the AZ Sun Program are the Hyder, Chino Valley, Luke
Airforce Base, and Yuma projects. The first three projects were vetted
and approved as part of a Request for Proposals (RFP) process initiated
by APS. The Yuma project is currently in the RFP stage. The goal is for
APS to own and operate the facilities, but the facilities themselves
are being constructed by third parties. This is the first time that
Phoenix-based APS is actually owning its solar power production
facilities rather than relying on third-party suppliers to meet its
"It was perfect timing for us to initiate and develop these plants
under the AZ Sun Program so that we could help diversify the ownership
of these projects, which creates balance for our ratepayers," says
Geisler. "It balances our risk as a company in operating these plants
in order to maintain reliable energy service for our customers, and it
allows us to still partner with third party developers." The developers
benefit because APS is carrying the financial burden.
The power utility has come a long way in a relatively short period of
time developing its solar power distribution capacity from its own
sources and from contract providers. That capacity has grown from 1 MW
in 2001 to more than 362 MWs at present, serving the needs of 90,000
The Paloma facility is also the first example where APS, the state's
largest power utility, has partnered with the state's largest solar
power developer, First Solar, headquartered in Tempe, Arizona. APS
partnered with SOLON Corporation, a subsidiary of SOLON SE on the
Cotton Center facility. The company's North American headquarters are
located in Tucson, Arizona, which includes a manufacturing facility.
When it comes to development of solar power, the state, APS, and
municipalities like Gila Bend seem to really have their act
together—starting with the state setting an RES to fuel
renewable power development, followed by APS's willingness to make a
substantial investment in its development.
To meet and exceed its RES commitments, APS will have 3.4 million MW
hours of renewable energy serving its customers by 2015, representing
about 11 percent of total retail sales, with the goal of achieving 15
percent by 2025.
Gila Bend's fast track approval process is also helping to make solar
power projects a reality in a timely fashion. The Paloma power plant is
a good example of that. APS signed the contract with First Solar to
construct the project in February 2011, construction began in June, and
the plant was declared commercially operational in
September—aconstruction period of only four months.
First Solar spokesperson Melanie Friedman says the company manufactures
solar panels and builds solar power generation plants. It uses a
‘copy smart' technique for building its manufacturing plants
so that each is very similar, and that philosophy carries forward to
how it constructs power generating facilities.
"The process that we have in place is what has enabled us to build
solar power plants so efficiently and quickly," she says. Friedman
added that the company's experience building large solar power
generating facilities and working with the community of Gila Bend and
with APS in its AZ Sun Program were also major contributors to how
quickly the Paloma project was constructed and commissioned.
"Both First Solar and APS have agreed that it is certainly the fastest
we have ever developed a utility scale solar project," says Geisler.
"First Solar has mentioned that they believe it is the fastest they
have ever seen completed in the world for the same size project."
Both solar projects are located in Gila Bend's new Solar Overlay Zone,
which the municipality has designated as a geographic area for
fast-tracking the permitting of new solar photovoltaic projects.
Permitting in this area takes less than three months, instead of the
typical one to two years.
"It (Cotton Center) is clearly one of the easiest projects that we have
developed in terms of moving the project forward at a very rapid pace,"
says Dan Alcombright, SOLON president and CEO. "Gila Bend has
identified that it has a competitive advantage in the solar resource,
as one of the prime locations in the country, both from a sun
standpoint and also from an interconnection standpoint in serving
Phoenix, one of the nation's largest population centers."
He adds that the application and approval of a conditional use permit
took about one-tenth the amount of time dealing with Gila Bend as it
has taken SOLON when dealing with some other jurisdictions.
Arizona still trails California in solar power production but is
quickly moving up the top-ten ladder among American states, being
driven largely by the RES the state has set for all local utilities.
While it is the largest producer of solar power, California is also the
top power consumer among the top 10, and Geisler says that explains why
solar power in Arizona has so far developed at a slower pace compared
to its neighbor.
APS has come a long way in a
relatively short period of time developing its solar power distribution
capacity from its own sources and from contract providers. That
capacity has grown from 1 MW in 2001 to more than 362 MWs.
Its power consumer base is considerably smaller than California, but he
has a strong feeling about Arizona's future capacity to continue to be
a leader in solar power development, considering that the state
receives over 350 days of sunshine and has a vast amount of flat land
to support solar power investment.
"I feel we have really just scratch-ed the surface," says Geisler.
"This is a premier region for solar installation, not only throughout
the country, but when compared to regions worldwide. There are a lot of
variables that go into the potential and certainly land availability is
key. I think we have a vast resource in available land that is capable
of supporting solar development." However, given the intermittent
nature of generating solar power, APS understands that it is important
to have reliable back-up service from conventional generation to
complement solar power.
Geisler adds that another positive working in Arizona's favor in terms
of solar power development is the number of developers situated in the
state with the equipment and experience to bring projects on stream.
"There is the availability of some industry-leading suppliers,
manufacturers, and developers of solar technology and power plants, who
are interested in developing these plants here in our region," says
Geisler. "So when you put forth a solicitation to hire developers to
construct some of these plants, we really are impressed and pleased to
see the response from such an experienced and diverse group of
developers. That is what has led to this being successful for
us—the combination of being in a good region and partnering
with very strong, experienced developers."
Friedman says that First Solar's company founder is from Arizona, and
the company views the American Southwest as one of its fastest growing
markets. It is currently building a manufacturing facility in Mesa,
Arizona. The local economy is definitely benefiting as a result.
"Here in Phoenix, the housing market has been hard hit by the economic
downturn, but those construction skills definitely translate into
solar," she says. "So if you have previous experience building a house,
we can definitely take those people and put them to work building solar
SOLON president and CEO Alcombrightadds that workers are also very
appreciative of the opportunity.
"What was gratifying for me was going out to a cook-out for about 200
construction workers, mechanics, and electricians at our Gila Bend
site, and the universal comment they had coming back to me was, 'thank
you for this job.'"