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Guest opinion

Giffords: Arizona’s solar future starts today

A leading national business magazine has crowned Arizona the nation's Solar Energy King – a prestigious honor that portends explosive growth in our state's rush to embrace power from the sun instead of power from petroleum.

Business Facilities magazine, a respected 40-year-old publication, said Arizona "easily took the top ranking" as first in the nation for being a leader in the alternative-energy and solar-manufacturing industries.

To which I say, thanks for noticing the progress that we have made – and the much more aggressive moves just around the corner.

Last month, the federal government awarded a $1.45 billion loan guarantee for construction in Arizona of the world's largest solar electricity generation plant. Abengoa's Solana generating station near Gila Bend will light 70,000 homes with 280 megawatts of clean, renewable energy starting in 2013.

When construction on this project begins later this year, it will mark the dawn of a new era for solar energy in Arizona and the nation.

For more than two years, Abengoa has been working with federal, state and local authorities to acquire permits, gain access to transmission lines, conduct environmental assessments and secure financing. As an unabashed supporter of solar's potential, I have encouraged officials at every level of government to work to make to make this project a reality.

The federal loan guarantee is essentially an insurance policy – a guarantee that Abengoa will pay back the billion-dollar loan it needs to finance this much-needed project.

Much like a mortgage, the loan will be paid back over 30 years using the proceeds from the sale of electricity the plant generates. The cost of the guarantee to taxpayers is minimal.

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The guarantee represents a smart leveraging of federal dollars to promote private investment in an asset that will generate not just electricity, but also jobs. The plant will create 1,700 construction jobs over two years and 85 permanent jobs. A new factory that will manufacture the mirrors for Solana and future projects will employ 150 more Arizonans.

This project will be successful because Solana is rooted in both sound economics and sound science. The company already has a contract with Arizona Public Service to purchase the electricity from the plant.

The parabolic trough technology being used to generate the electricity is a much-improved version of systems used at solar plants in California, which have been successfully generating clean electricity since 1985.

Currently, Arizona imports more than $9 billion of energy every year. Solana will help cut this outflow of dollars while allowing the state to realize the benefits of more than $1 billion of direct investment during construction and up to $400 million in tax revenues over the 30-year payback.

Just as importantly, Solana will help conserve Arizona's most precious resource: water. The plant will require only about one-ninth the water needed when the land was used for agriculture.

The growth of the solar industry is a business success story. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, the U.S. solar energy industry grew last year despite the recession, with increases in both new installations and employment and revenues climbing 36 percent.

That's a growth rate many industries would love to have – particularly as our economy is emerging from the most severe downturn since the Great Depression.

Washington has taken notice. There is growing congressional interest in legislation aimed at advancing solar energy. My Solar Technology Roadmap Act, for example, is among the bills that could light the way for many more projects similar to Solana.

But Solana is just the beginning. With the right vision and leadership, this landmark project can be the first of many great solar marvels to rise in Arizona.

Having the largest solar power plant in the world in our backyard is not just a reminder of solar's limitless potential. It is a testament to the fact that solar is a technology and economic driver that doesn't need to wait for tomorrow. It already is here, bringing benefits to our state and nation.

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Gabrielle Giffords represented Arizona’s 8th Congressional District from 2007 to 2012, when she resigned to focus on her recovery after being wounded in the Jan. 8, 2011 shootings. She founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, along with husband Mark Kelly, to focus on preventing gun violence.

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3 comments on this story

Aug 19, 2010, 9:44 pm
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Ah, I see they’re estimating $4 billion in possible revenues over 30 years. The previous story’s a good one. I’d missed it. Thanks!

Aug 19, 2010, 9:37 pm
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In Arizona, utility rates are set by the state Corporation Commission, an elected body. If people want low rates, they can vote for them at the polls ; )

There’s a little bit on Solana’s financial breakdown - and a few links to more info - in the story we broke on the solar plant last month: World’s largest solar plant slated for Gila Bend.

Aug 19, 2010, 9:23 pm
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I wish Representative Giffords had included with her endorsement of this project a clear-eyed presentation of the economics, e.g. how do the costs break down; when will the project break even; what, if any, are the energy pricing assumptions (i.e. are there any guarantees to consumers that energy costs will remain below certain agreed maximums?

I’m all for “alternative” energy, but solutions that don’t make financial sense without federal subsidies (and I’m not suggesting a loan equals a subsidy) are not good ones.

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