Large-Scale Solar Booming in Arizona

published: 2012-02-06 10:42 | editor: | category: Analysis

by D.A. Barber

Arizona was the fastest-growing state until the recession. Until recently, Arizona’s power generators included four coal-fired power plants and the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S., located west of Phoenix. But in 2011 the state had become very aggressive in expanding its solar output and is fast becoming a showcase for a variety of solar technologies not found in other areas of the U.S., including projects using SunPower’s C7 Tracker technology, Areva's Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector technology, and EnviroMission’s "solar updraft" technology.

In addition, Arizona has been pushing a solar manufacturing “cluster” for several years with some success luring manufacturers such as thin-film solar giant, First Solar. California-based inverter manufacturer Power-One Inc. is also among the newest solar manufacturers to move to Arizona, opening a 120,000-square foot facility in Phoenix in 2011.

Since China-based Suntech Power opened its Arizona manufacturing plant in October 2010, the facility has grown steadily. By May 2011, the 117,000-square foot facility began running 24 hours per day bringing the annual production to about 50MW, representing 15,000 Suntech 280W solar panels per month.

There have been setbacks: Germany-based Solon ceased production of PV modules in Tucson at the end of October 2011. The plant had a production capacity of 60MW per year and employed about 60.

Meanwhile, advanced solar research at the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park Solar Zone, and Arizona State University’s new Engineering Research Center are both aimed at creating high-efficiency solar technologies and manufacturing methods. ASU had already created a $3 million Solar Power Laboratory in 2008 and the Uof A had established the $1.2 million Arizona Institute for Solar Energy in 2007.

With the state’s ideal location and 300 days of sunshine, the area has high quality solar insolation. Factor in the vast stretches of open desert near both major metropolitan areas and it is understandable why Arizona’s solar power future is about to rival California.

Arizona’s Solar Ranking

Arizona made substantial strides in 2010 by installing over 63 megawatts of solar power, doubling its 2009 output of 21 megawatts. As of September 20, 2011, Arizona had increased solar installations in the second quarter, but still slipped to 4th place in overall installations, according to a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Still, Arizona does rank third in the country behind California and Colorado in its number of solar jobs, according to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2011.

Arizona Public Service (APS), Arizona’s largest utility, is the 7th largest supplier of new solar energy generation in the U.S., according to the Solar Top 10 Utility Solar Rankings released in July 2011 by the Solar Electric Power Association. Currently, APS’ total renewable portfolio is 930MW, including projects online and in development. Of that total, 362MW are in service today.

APS' 3MW  Prescott Airport PV site was finished in 2006

Tucson Electric Power (TEP), which serves over 400,000 customers in southern Arizona, came in 6th in the second category of the Utility Solar Rankings: “Solar Watts per Customer,” which measures the amount of new solar capacity installed divided by the number of customers. TEP generated 29.7 watts per customer, compared to top-ranked Silicon Valley Power in California with 39.9 watts.

But these rankings don’t include the most recent projects that have just gone online in late 2011 that added an additional 54MW.

In late 2011, APS - with First Solar - flipped the switch on both the 17MW Paloma Solar Power Plant consisting of 275,000 thin-film PV panels, and the 17MW Cotton Center Solar Plant. Both plants are located in Gila Bend. APS is also buying all of the power from two other project that recently went on line. The 5MW Ajo Solar Project, located near Tucson, uses 21,000 PV panels, and the15MW Bagdad Solar Project, located in Yavapai County, which uses 72,000 PV panels.

Currently Under Construction

Arizona will be generating an additional 720MW by 2014, which will change all its solar rankings. As of October 18, 2011, there were already three large-scale utility projects under construction:

•    Spain-based Abengoa Solar is building the 280MW CSP Solana Generating Station plant outside Gila Bend 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, which is expected to be completed in 2013. The project received a $1.45 billion loan from the U.S. government in 2010 and will sell the power to APS - enough for 70,000 homes. Solana will use trough arrays with 3,200 mirrors to superheat a liquid to create steam for its turbine generators. This will also be the largest U.S. solar plant able to store energy and operate up to six hours after dark.

Artist rendering source: Abengoa Solar

•    The 290MW Agua Caliente project in Yuma County, which received a $967 million loan guarantee in August 2011 from the U.S. government, will use thin-film PV panels supplied by First Solar. That project is owned by NRG Energy to supply California’s PG&E under a 25-year power purchase agreement when it’s completed in 2014.

•    The 150MW PV Mesquite Solar I project, 40 miles west of Phoenix, is under construction by San Diego-based Sempra Energy, which received a $337 million U.S. government loan guarantee. In October 2011, Sempra began receiving PV panels from Suntech's Arizona manufacturing plant. When finished in 2013, the plant will use more than 800,000 Suntech panels and Sempra will sell the power to California’s Pacific Gas & Electric under a 20-year contract.

New Projects Recently Approved

Between December 2011 and mid-January 2012, there were a number of medium and large-scale projects approved around the Arizona that will add over 800MW of additional solar power to the state’s grid.

•    In December 2011, SunEdison received a $88.5 million loan to build a 20MW solar park in Picture Rocks, AZ to supply power to metropolitan Tucson. The loan is part of a $136 million package approved by the Border Environment Cooperation Commission and the North American Development Bank. In January, the two organizations also approved a $13.15 million loan for a 6.1MW solar plant to also provide electricity to TEP in Tucson. The joint project between panel manufacturer Astronergy Solar, Inc. and solar developer Solmotion GmbH, will use thin-film amorphous silicon modules with azimuth positioning as part of the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park Solar Zone.

•    In December 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the first project on the agency's federal lands in Arizona. Boulevard Associates, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, will build the 300MW Sonoran Solar Energy Project on 2,013 acres southwest of Phoenix. The original project was for a 375MW CSP plant, but BLM requested a PV project instead over water concerns.

•    In Sun Valley west of Phoenix, Canadian-based Capital Power plans to build a PV solar farm to produce 420MW.  Still under study is whether the solar collectors will be fixed or single-axis tracking units. Capital Power hopes to begin generating power in increments of 20MW by the end of 2013.

•    On Dec 29, 2011, Nevada-based Matinee Energy, Inc. broke ground in Benson, AZ for construction of a 120MW solar power plant. Matinee Energy is working with GreenStone System and WEIS GmbH Consortium on the PV plant.

“First in the World” Technology Use

Other recently approved projects in Arizona involve using some emerging solar technologies for the first time on a large scale. For example, on Jan 16, 2012, the Salt River Project utility, Arizona State University, and SunPower Corp. agreed to build a 1MW plant at ASU's Polytechnic campus in Mesa. This PV facility will be the first commercial deployment of SunPower’s C7 Tracker technology.

In July 2011, EnviroMission, the Australian pioneer of "solar updraft" technology, signed Phoenix-based Faithful+Gould to build its 200MW Solar Tower plant in La Paz County, AZ. Solar Tower technology uses solar radiation to heat air which rises and passes through 32 turbines, providing enough electricity to power 100,000 typical U.S. households.

This is the first large-scale attempt of this technology and when finished in 2015 will have the world's tallest “chimney” at 2,600 feet. In fact, it will be the second-tallest structure on the planet, just a hundred feet shorter than the Burj Khalifa luxury skyscraper in Dubai. A 30-year power purchase agreement with Southern California Public Power Authority was agreed to in October 2011.

Another, smaller scale project by Tucson Electric Power will be the state’s first “hybrid solar” project. TEP is currently dismantling a fuel-oil storage facility at it’s H. Wilson Sundt coal-fired power plant for a 5MW project with France’s Areva Solar. It will be among the first projects to use CSP to augment steam generation and the first in the world to use Areva's Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector technology. Rather than using trough- or dish-shaped CSP mirrors, Areva's technology uses flat mirrors arranged in louverlike arrays that track the sun to heat water passing overhead through a linear absorber.

Areva Solar's Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector uses rows of long, nearly flat mirrors that track the sun.

Arizona Market Conclusions

In October 2011, the Arizona Solar Leadership Conference met to develop an industry plan aimed at making Arizona a “global powerhouse” in solar development. Rob Gillette, CEO of Tempe, AZ-based First Solar, told the conference “There’s no reason why Arizona can’t lead the world in solar power generation.” The AZ Governor’s Solar Energy Task Force told the conference the state will address the major challenges of transmission, financing and permitting, and the Arizona Corporation Commission pledged to push solar projects through the permit process quickly.

There has been concern that solar development in Arizona could stall if California does not buy the power. But this seems unlikely. The projects are part of the state utilities’ need to comply with the Arizona “renewable portfolio standard,” which requires the utilities to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2025. California not only has a 33 percent mandate, but that state’s utilities are forbidden to purchase power from coal-fired plants - such as the 4 huge coal plants in Arizona.

With so many solar projects recently approved and many more planned, Arizona seems likely to be a huge market for various solar power equipment suppliers over the course of the next several years.

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