Solar energy is one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S., and it’s having a transformative impact on energy consumption and production — while helping to drive economic recovery. In 2010, the solar industry alone accounted for 93,000 Americans holding jobs in the U.S., according to The Solar Foundation, and all 50 states have seen growth.

Given that solar power’s key ingredient is the sun, the nation’s southwestern deserts make an ideal setting in which to build solar facilities. Arizona, which is about 42 percent desert and boasts sunshine nearly year-round, has become a hotbed for solar projects that are both operational and under construction.

“Arizona considers itself to be a potential superstar in the solar energy business,” said Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

In Pinal County, Ariz., a 20-megawatt (or 20 million-watt) photovoltaic plant, called Copper Crossing Solar Ranch, was completed in September 2011 by Portland, Ore.-based energy company Iberdrola Renewables and the Salt River Project (SRP), a public power utility that mainly serves Maricopa and Pinal counties. Copper Crossing is Iberdrola’s first solar energy project in the U.S.; the company is better known for producing wind energy.

The solar plant sits on 144 acres in Florence, the county seat of Pinal County, and can provide clean energy for up to 3,700 residential homes within the community. Construction on Copper Crossing began in late 2010, and at the height of construction, nearly 200 workers were employed. The plant is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 525,000 metric tons over the next 25 years, according to San Jose, Calif.-based SunPower Corp., which manufactured more than 66,000 polycrystalline photovoltaic solar panels for the project. The panels are mounted on single-axis tracking arms, so as the sun moves across the sky, the panels also move, creating more efficiency.

Although Copper Crossing is complete, other desert-region solar projects being built on federal land aren’t as easy to execute. These projects must meet specific criteria, said the BLM’s Godfrey, and each must have an environmental impact statement outlining the details of the proposed project. Given the hurdles to meet those requirements, completion can sometimes stall.

The BLM is currently involved in three active solar projects in Arizona that are awaiting approval to be built.

A Sunny Partnership

The partnership between the SRP and Iberdrola was essential to the success of Pinal County’s solar project, said Debbie Kimberly, manager of customer programs and marketing for the SRP. Because the SRP is a political subdivision of Arizona, it can neither take advantage of nor pass on incentives or tax credits for solar energy to school districts and residents. By partnering with Iberdrola, those benefits, in the form of competitive prices for the solar energy, can be shared with customers.

The SRP opened eight of the plant’s 20 megawatts to school districts that wanted to have a portion of their power supply come from solar energy, and created subscription agreements for school districts to pay a fixed price for the solar energy over 10 years, Kimberly said. Eleven school districts and more than 100 schools have subscribed and will pay a flat rate of 9.9 cents per kilowatt-hour (a usage rate of 1,000 watts per hour).

Pinal County Supervisor Bryan Martyn said that while shifting to alternative energy creates long-term benefits for the community, citizens don’t immediately jump on board.

“Most citizens don’t appreciate a whole lot of change. They’re happy to keep things the way they are,” Martyn said. “But at the same time, $4 per gallon gas really motivates people to look at alternative energy sources, and we as Americans have to figure out how we power our country using resources that are inside our own borders.”

Residential customers are allotted a separate portion of the plant’s 20 megawatts, according to Kimberly. As of November 2011, 215 residential customers had subscribed to more than 500 kilowatts of the plant. Unlike the school districts, residential customers aren’t obligated to commit to a 10-year contract. Instead, they subscribe to five-year contracts.

“Residential customers didn’t want a pay-a-cent-per-kilowatt-hour charge; they wanted to pay for a block of solar energy,” Kimberly said, explaining that they pay $24.15 for 1 kilowatt block of energy.

Light Ahead

Going forward, local and federal officials hope that BLM-related projects will stimulate job growth in the Arizona desert region with smarter buildings being the result. Completed projects like Copper Crossing in Pinal County will continue producing cleaner energy and providing incentives to those who subscribe to solar energy contracts.

Martyn said all of the key players in the Pinal County project were vital to completing it on time and under budget. However, power production wasn’t the only goal in mind for the future.

“The largest benefit from a project like this is not in power production. It’s more in education and exposure,” Martyn said. “Showing that we are trying to move forward relative to renewable energy sources and we’re utilizing the one resource we have in Arizona — the abundant resource we have in Arizona — which is the sun.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.