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Could an Arizona Town Become the Solar Capital of the World?

Reducing bureaucratic barriers to solar project development helped attract major solar companies to Gila Band, Arizona, creating more local jobs than the town has people.

When Rick Buss left his position as city manager of Maricopa, Arizona, to become the town manager of a 2,000-person, economically struggling town called Gila Bend in 2008, some people who know him personally and professionally wondered why.

But with a firm background in both technology companies and sustainable management, Mr. Buss had a vision: "There's no reason why Gila Bend, Arizona, can't be the solar capitol of the world."

So he got to work. He brought over a young talent from Maricopa, Eric Fitzer, to serve as his right hand man. Fitzer, Buss tells me, is particularly skilled with zoning and economic development, and working together they crafted a "Solar Field Overlay Zone" (SFOZ), which greatly reduced the complications for solar companies to develop the sun-soaked fields located within the town.   

In addition, Rick worked with the town government to expedite the speed at which solar companies’ construction plans could get approved. Processes that usually take at least a year, and often several years, can now go through public hearings, citizen review sessions, planning and zoning commissions hearings, publication in a newspaper, and council approval in as little as four weeks.

"We aren't even seeing that kind of consistent speed for permitting approvals in the residential sector," said Energy Department's Solar Market Transformation Lead Jennifer DeCesaro. “Whether we're talking about a small 5 kilowatt residential system or a large several hundred megawatt industrial system, lack of consistency and transparency in solar permitting is a challenge for every market sector in this country.”

“When I speak to the solar company executives, what matters the most to them is the elimination of risk,” said Mr. Buss.  “They know they won't get half way through a year-long approval process and then have the rug pulled out from under them, which happens to them a lot in other towns and states.”

Just months after the new processes were in place, two solar companies, Paloma and Cotton Center, had power plants under construction. They’ll both begin to send power on to the Arizona Public Service Co. (APS) power grid by 2012. Right now, two other plants have filed applications with the town, with the possibility of 10-15 more viable plants in the pipeline.

First Solar Vice President Jim Woodruff, whose company built the Paloma solar plant in town in 2011, comments, "Gila Bend has set a world record in utility scale solar plant construction….Right now, we can't build solar power faster anywhere in the world.”

Among the town's next goals, like attracting manufacturing companies to their town, Mr. Buss and the solar companies are interested in serving up power to utility companies in California and Mexico, with possible interconnections to their grids less than 60 miles away.

Right now, the new plants take up approximately four square miles through Gila Bend, most of which used to be cotton and alfalfa fields. Because farming those crops utilizes so much water, these solar energy plants represent a 75 percent to 90 percent reduction in water use in the area. “If you place concentrated solar class power plants in the right places, they actually reduce water use.” said Mr. Buss.

The companies’ objective, says Buss, is to hire locally, but with 2,300 new jobs and just 2,000 residents, there simply aren't enough people in Gila Bend to fill all the positions. So town and company representatives go to neighboring towns and cities and hold workshops, spreading news of the opportunities in Gila Bend.

"Gila Bend had essentially been economically stagnant for the last two decades….Now some people are driving up to 2.5 hours each way for our jobs."

The town, with the help of donations from the solar companies, has set up career development center, to give people advice on how to interview and resources to help workers turn their new jobs into careers. They’re even discussing creating a “Solar Express” transit system, which would transport workers back and forth from Maricopa County to Gila Bend each day.

Mr. Buss makes sure to emphasize the many additional jobs that are being generated in Gila Bend and nearby towns because of the solar plants companies. Shops are selling lunches to the influx of workmen, and nearby manufacturers are hiring new staff to fill more orders .

When told by Jennifer DeCesaro what he was doing in Gila Bend was innovative, Fredrick Buss responded simply, "It's common sense."

"Well, either way," she said, "it's amazing."