Arizona’s rural electric companies turn to solar energy
Benson, like many other small cities and towns, isn’t known for renewable energy. With a population of just over 5,000 people, it is best known for its railroad history.
However, this southeastern Arizona city in Cochise County with its abundant sunshine and lots of vacant land available at a good price, is an ideal spot for developing solar power.
Arizona Generation and Transmission, a utility co-op of 10 smaller utilities from Arizona, California and Nevada, decided it was time to start developing. So it opened the Apache Solar Project, its first utility-scale solar facility, this fall.
About a 30-minute drive from downtown Benson, the new 20-megawatt solar farm is comprised of more than 77,000 solar panels arranged in several columns. Like most newer solar facilities, the panels are designed to rotate throughout the day and continually face the sun.
With each of Arizona G&T’s co-ops signing up for a portion of the power, the facility is now bringing renewable energy to thousands of rural Arizona consumers.
This solar development just across the street from the Arizona G&T’s main coal-fired power plant is small compared to some of the major solar farms in Yuma and Maricopa County, but it is now one of the largest G&T operated solar facilities in the country, according to data from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents more than 900 not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives.
Barry Brown, executive director of engineering and transmission maintenance, said the co-op wasn’t initially planning on making their new facility as big as 20 megawatts, but because of good pricing, investing in a larger project made sense.
“We own several thousand acres of property here, and we’ve been looking for ways to provide renewable energy to our members,” Brown said.
“We started looking at different sizes of potential projects and started looking at small, two, four and 10-megawatt facilities. But we found that as the project got larger, it was more affordable.”
The members expressed a desire to become more involved in renewables, said Brown, so it was a collaborative effort.
Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said there are few instances in which rooftop solar investments are beneficial for utilities. The economy of scale involved in larger solar plants makes them a better buy.
“Utility-scale (solar installations), from an economics standpoint, are always going to beat rooftop,” Matheson said. “And not just a little bit, a factor of 2-1. It depends in a utility service territory on the opportunity for consumers to realize benefits from solar or not. Some utilities have said we’re going to move ahead with this, and others won’t.”
The 20 megawatts coming from the solar facility adds to more than 600 megawatts of traditional power capacity from the coal plant. While solar power won’t replace traditional fuel for Arizona G&T in the near future, projects such as these help G&T’s members achieve renewable energy standards.