Change to Buckeye solar project looking like ‘win–win’
A proposed solar energy project in the West Valley needed a city’s worth of water from a nearby reservoir and a backup natural gas system to operate.
A year later, it didn’t.
With sudden shifts in solar technology leading to sharply lower costs, the Bureau of Land Management recently recommended the Sonoran Solar proposal go from the originally proposed steam-powered turbine to an all-electronic photovoltaic system that uses 95 percent less water.
The change to the project south of Buckeye was hailed by local officials, who had worried that the original proposal would affect water supply in West Valley cities, increase noise and tarnish the view from nearby vistas.
“It addresses virtually all of the concerns we had,” said Joe Schmitz, planning manager for the town of Goodyear.
The BLM’s recommended change is also fine by Boulevard Associates LLC, the company behind the project.
“We are comfortable with the PV (photovoltaic) option and think that is an appropriate recommendation, given some of the concerns that were raised by BLM and some of the stakeholders,” said Steven Stengel, a spokesman for NextEra, the parent company to Boulevard Associates.
Stengel said the firm has not signed an agreement with a buyer yet, and no construction will get under way until that happens.
If BLM approves the project, Sonoran Solar would generate 300 megawatts of power from a little more than 2,000 acres between Buckeye and Goodyear.
Photovoltaic technology – commonly called PV – has been powering calculators and sitting on rooftops of houses for decades, but it is a newcomer to energy generation for large-scale projects like Sonoran Solar.
In an environmental impact statement issued last month, BLM said the project should use photovoltaic technology because it requires a fraction of water of the original plan and does not need a natural gas turbine.
“It just works,” said Scott Lowe, Buckeye’s director of public works.
The original April 2010 proposal called for a concentrated solar thermal system, which chapped the hides of local governments and environmental groups and raised concerns among federal regulators. So-called CST systems use the sun’s rays to heat water or transfer fluid to make steam that powers a turbine.
The system would have needed about 980 million gallons of water per year for steam and cooling, BLM’s environmental impact statement said. City officials from Buckeye and Goodyear said that would be a problem, especially if their populations grow as expected.
But in May 2011, a BLM newsletter said photovoltaic technology had become inexpensive and efficient enough to be considered for a project the size of Sonoran Solar, something that was not feasible when the agency began its review of the project.
For any project to get under way on BLM land, the agency has to approve it – but once the approval is made, it can be complicated to revise it.
“Fortunately, this came about right before the final EIS (report) was issued,” said Joe Incardine, national project manager for BLM who was involved in the Sonoran Solar application.
In recent years, demand for photovoltaic systems surged, especially in Europe, and companies broke ground on new plants to meet an expected boom, said David Feldman of National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But just as those plants came on line, the global recession set in and government-backed incentives for solar waned, he said, weakening demand for PV.
The demand for the technology is still growing, just not nearly enough to equal rapidly increasing supply, he said.
A combination of oversupply and improved production methods caused prices for PV components to fall as much as 50 percent or more since 2009 to early 2011, Feldman said.
He said there is still a place for steam turbine technology. CST plants are opening around the globe because it is still the most suitable option in many cases.
But Sonoran Solar’s change could set an example for future projects, Incardine said.
“It kind of opens up the door for BLM to be asking those questions if someone were to come up with another CST project,” he said.