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Solar boom underway in Tucson, Southern Arizona

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Solar boom underway in Tucson, Southern Arizona

  • A parking lot at ASU is covered by an array of solar panels.
    kevindooley/FlickrA parking lot at ASU is covered by an array of solar panels.

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base has a proud and distinguished record of training this nation's fighter pilots and protecting our country's air space for more than eight decades.

Soon, D-M will write a new chapter in American leadership by having the military's largest solar-generating capacity.

The base will turn to the sun for one-third of its power needs, relying on what will be one of the nation's biggest solar power plants – a 14.5-megawatt photovoltaic array slated for construction next year. That will give D-M the military's largest photovoltaic plant, surpassing the 14.2-megawatt array built at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada three years ago.

D-M already is home to the largest solar neighborhood in the nation. Some 6 megawatts of solar generating capacity has been installed at the Soaring Heights community on the base, meeting about 75 percent of the peak power demand in the housing area.

In the past, an Air Force base would not normally have been considered a paragon of sustainable energy. After all, the Department of Defense is the world's largest user of energy. Each day, the U.S. military consumes nearly 400,000 barrels of fuel, spending $20 billion annually to meet its needs.

However, military leaders across the country have come to recognize the dangerous implications of our dependence on fossil fuels. The security of our troops and of our nation's electric grid can no longer depend on hostile regimes and harmful fuels. The military understands the benefits of strategic investment in clean, domestic sources of energy and is taking swift and serious action.

D-M's ground-mounted solar array will be built by Maryland-based SunEdison and cover about 130 acres on the base's northwest and north sides. Construction will begin next year and the solar equipment will be fully operational within 36 months.

The Southern Arizona VA Health Care System also is leaping into the solar race in Southern Arizona – a move that promises to produce significant long-term savings for taxpayers.

The VA recently completed a 302-kilowatt, photovoltaic array that tracks the sun. More is on the way, with a 2.9-megawatt carport-mounted system – the largest of its kind in the United States – planned for the VA hospital.

When it comes to solar, Tucson and Southern Arizona get it. The past 12 to 18 months have seen a phenomenal jump in the number of solar panels installed here and the amount of energy that we are producing locally, from the sun, not from unsustainable, imported sources.

Solar energy is an economic powerhouse. Nationwide, the solar industry and its supply chain now support roughly 46,000 jobs in the United States. With growth expected to continue, that number is likely to surpass 60,000 by the end of 2010. The solar industry can contribute significantly to job growth and economic recovery in Arizona.

Solar is an economic driver in Southern Arizona, with manufacturers, installers, municipalities, universities, utilities and local, state, and federal governments all taking action to develop our solar industry.

Tucson Electric Power Co. has been a leader in this switch to solar, thanks to the leadership of Paul Bonavia, chairman, president and CEO of UniSource Energy, parent company of TEP.

In the first six months of 2010, nearly 1,100 homeowners installed residential solar systems with SunShare rebates from TEP. That is more residential solar systems than had been installed in the previous nine years in TEP's service area.

The city of Tucson, designated a Solar America City, has 13 solar projects planned – projects that will generate about 1.3 megawatts of power. Pima County has several solar projects completed and several more in the planning stages – projects that will save taxpayers about $552,000 per year.

The University of Arizona has a diverse range of innovative solar research projects underway – projects designed to make solar even more affordable and more efficient. The Solar Zone at UA's Science and Technology Park will generate 20 megawatts of power and is envisioned as the largest multi-technology site for solar technologies in the United States.

Nonprofit organizations also are finding that solar is right for them, allowing scarce funding to be spent on their missions instead of on utility bills.

In Tucson, the Southern Arizona Chapter of the American Red Cross is the first Red Cross facility in the nation to be solar-powered. And the Community Food Bank is installing solar panels on a covered parking structure, saving the organization $10,000 per year – money that can be spent to help hungry Tucsonans.

Just up the road from Tucson is the granddaddy of all projects: Solana. Starting in 2013, this cutting-edge generating station near Gila Bend will light 70,000 Arizona homes with 280 megawatts of clean, renewable energy. This plant will be privately funded and operated in partnership with Arizona Public Service– but was made possible by a $1.45 billion federal loan guarantee.

It is widely accepted that we are at the beginning of a major expansion of solar energy use in Arizona, the United States and around the world. 

The question is not if we will see increasing demand for solar power in the coming years, it is only whether Arizona will dominate this emerging industry or will settle for a small slice of the pie.

We have the talent, skills, and resources to lead all aspects of the solar industry – from research and development to product design, from manufacturing to installation, from the exporting of solar products to the exporting of clean solar power itself.

Our state can and must be at the very epicenter of this burgeoning industry. 

Now is the time for us to focus our efforts and make Arizona the best place in the world for the solar industry to do business.

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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