Gila Bend: Leaders in Solar Power

We’re staying in Gila Bend Arizona for the next several days, just outside the Sonoran Desert National Monument.  Gila Bend is a dusty town about 1/2 way between Tucson and Phoenix.  This little 4-gas station town is mostly dirt, sand and sun.  Lots of sun. One of the sunniest states in the U.S., Gila Bend receives 300 days of sunshine per year.

Hats off to the city planners of Gila Bend.  They purposefully created an economic and zoning environment to capitalize on their #1 natural resource: the sun.  Eric Fitzer, the planning and economic-development director for Gila Bend, worked with town leaders to create a “solar overlay zone.”  Utility-sized solar plant zoning normally takes 2 years to meet zoning requirements, a major barrier to developing solar power.  Gila Bend’s upfront zoning reduced this to a mere 6 weeks. (Source: Solar Power Booming)

The 275,000 photovoltaic panels of the Paloma Solar Plant

This foresight is propelling Gila Bend into a national leadership position in solar power generation.  With 2 solar plants online producing a combined 34 megawatts of power, there are an additional 11 projects planned.  The 2 plants produce electricity for over 8,000 homes in Phoenix. 

There are 2 types of solar plants in Gila Bend.  The Cotton Center plant uses concentrated solar power, capitalizing on the heat generating properties of the sun. Mirrors concentrate sunlight on tubes filled with oil.  The hot oil is transformed into steam, spinning a turbine and generating electricity much like natural-gas or coal-fired power plants. In addition, large tanks of salt store the heat after dark, letting the plant generate electricity in the early evening, when it is in highest demand in the Phoenix area. The panels are positioned on pivoting steel frames that track the sun throughout the day.

Cotton Center concentrated solar farm in Gila Bend, AZ.

The second plant uses photovoltaic solar power, capitalizing on the light properties of the sun. The Paloma power plant uses thin-film silicon to convert sunlight directly into electricity.  The silicon is sandwiched between 2 conductors.  Photons of sunlight knock the electrons loose from the silicon atoms, which are captured by the conductor, which produces a current of electricity.

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Solar energy is considered a renewable resource because the fuel supply is the sun.  This clean energy produces zero pollution and green house gas emissions.  This is in contrast to our primary source of electricity generation in the U.S.: coal.  When coal is burned, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury compounds are released. The EPA requires many U.S. coal-fired boilers to install pollution control devices that reduce (not eliminate) the amount of emissions that are released.  However, many older plants are exempt from this EPA requirements. (Source: EPA).  In addition, coal electricity emits 4,000 lbs of CO2 per year per U.S. household, which was recently categorized by the EPA as a pollutant. (Source: California Greenhouse Gas Emissions)

Which would you rather have in your back yard?  One of the above solar plants or a coal-fired plant?  The below picture is of the Cholla Power Plant located in Joseph City, Arizona. There’s nothing “clean” about coal. Not mining it, transporting it or burning it.  The sun does the work in solar power: no mining, no transporting, no burning.  That’s clean energy!

Copyright © Squeaks2569 Alan Stark. Image used under Creative Common License.

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