APS Opens New Solar Plant Near Gila Bend

November 06, 2013

(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
The center of the plant includes a series of pipes where oil heated by the solar panels is used to boil water for steam turbines.
(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
The entrance to the Solana Generating Station near Gila Bend.
(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
Brad Albert, a resource manager with APS, stands in front one of the parabolic trough solar panels that tilt to follow the day's sunlight.
(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
The Solana plant covers three square miles of desert with solar panels.

One of the largest solar power plants in the world has started producing electricity in the Arizona desert. The Solana Generating Station went online a few weeks ago. It is privately owned and produces electricity for Arizona Public Service Company.

“I’m standing at the center of this massive plant. It’s about three square miles, and we’re about three stories above ground here next to some cooling towers," I explained when I toured the plant near Gila Bend this week. "Here’s some steam rising in the sky as you can hear its very noisy, but it’s a great vantage point, because when you look in each direction you’ll see rows and rows of solar panels, and APS uses this electricity to power 70,000 homes across Arizona. In fact, the radio you are listening to right now might be getting electricity from where I’m standing here near Gila Bend."

“Right now we are in the first month of operation, so our main challenge I say would be to optimize production in the next years," Emiliano Garcia told me.

Garcia is with Abengoa, a multinational corporation based in Spain that owns and operates Solana. The plant cost $2 billion to build, and most of that was financed by grants and loan guarantees from the federal government. It uses thousands of solar panels to heat up pipes full organic oil. That hot oil boils water to make steam which turns turbines to generate clean energy. 

Solana general manager Armando Zuluaga said the plant protects the environment in other ways. 

"Here before Solana there was an alfalfa farm, and we are using just one tenth of the water, the previous agricultural use that the water was using,” said Zuluaga. 

Solana is one of the first solar plants that can store thermal power for six hours after the sun sets or on cloudy days. Zuluaga said that is something that other solar plants cannot do. Figuring out storage has huge implications for the solar industry.   

"Hi, I’m Brad Albert and I’m the general manager of resource management for APS," said Albert, introducing himself. 

Albert said Solana’s ability to store energy in the summer means APS can meet peak demands of air conditioners at night.  

"This plant can be producing at full power at 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and even on to midnight on a hot summer day. That has a lot of value for serving our customers,” said Albert.

APS has signed a 30 year contract to purchase power from Solana.  Albert said prices will not go up and down like they do for electricity that is generated from coal or natural gas. He said Solana is also helping Arizona’s economy grow because it created thousands of jobs and all of the solar panels were made at a factory in Surprise, but not everyone is praising APS. 

"Well, it’s all spin. It’s just obvious what they are trying to do," said Court Rich, an attorney who specializes in renewable energy with the Rose Law Group in Scottsdale. "The problem is that APS would like to only do the large plants and is not in favor of their customers putting solar on their rooftop."

He said APS is promoting the Solana Plant to get good publicity in advance of the Arizona Corporation Commission’s scheduled vote next week on net metering. APS wants to charge people with home solar systems a monthly maintenance fee for sending unused electricity to the utility’s grid system. 

"We’ve finally gotten to a point where solar energy on your rooftop is economical and without incentives in Arizona right now you can put solar on your rooftop and save money on your utility bill and that is what has frightened the utility.” Rich said.

But, Solana and APS officials said they are not trying to monopolize solar power in Arizona. In fact, APS said it still relies heavily on other sources. It gets most of its power from coal then nuclear, natural gas, and less than 5 percent comes from solar.