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Firm 'thrilled' with support, progress in Ajo solar project

Ajo Copper News of Ajo, Arizona

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The Ajo Solar Energy Project is moving ahead with full speed at the site two miles east of town off Pipeline Road.

"We're thrilled with the smooth progress and the great support from the community," said Katie Augustus, on behalf of Recurrent Energy, developer of the project. "As planned, we're right on track to wrap up the project in August," she added.

Most of the grading and excavation work has been done at the 40-acre site, with installation of the 21,000 modules underway. When completed, the project will provide between 5 million and 10 million kWh of power. Company spokesmen have said this is the equivalent of taking 1,400 cars off the road. At full capacity, it will generate enough electricity to provide the energy needs for 1,000+ homes.

To date, approximately 50 people have been working on the project, and half of those jobs have gone to Ajo residents.

"It's been particularly great to have so many local workers on site," said Augustus. "Jobs have ranged from welders to equipment operators to general construction working on a clean power project that will eventually feed right back into the electricity grid that powers their homes and businesses."

Recurrent, Arizona Public Service and Freeport-McMoRan are partners in the project. Freeport is the property owner leasing the land to Recurrent, which acts as developer, financer, builder and operator. The solar-generated power will be sold to APS.

Andre Devilbiss, Recurrent's West Coast director of development, noted at the beginning of the project that it has an expected lifespan of 25-35 years, depending on how long it takes the panels to degrade.

"Solar projects like this one are built to last for decades," said Augustus. "Periodic maintenance, such as washing of the solar panels, will be required." She added that a full maintenance and operations plan will not be in place until closer to the end of construction.

The Ajo Solar Energy Project is the latest in a boom of solar-energy activities in the area. A massive installation is currently being undertaken in the Gila Bend area, also in partnership with APS. German and Spanish-owned companies are involved in those projects. Recurrent is a San Francisco-based company owned by the Sharp Corp. of Japan.

"We're very excited about this (Ajo) project," said Steven Got-fried of APS. "It adds to our current portfolio of solar projects across Arizona." As to the question of whether the new grid will solve outage problems often experienced during the summer, an APS spokesman said it's not likely to be the answer. When power is lost coming in, it automatically triggers a full shutdown for safety reasons. It's also unclear whether the grid site generator would work as an emergency power source.

"Ajo is one of our first projects," said Devilbass when the project was announced. "It is a focus on what we call 'utility scale' projects." Recurrent's sole focus, he said, is on developing solar projects in North America.

The Ajo site is not the only Freeport-APS solar partnership in Arizona.

Freeport and APS are also building a massive 15-megawatt photovoltaic solar-panel plant in Bagdad. The plant would be the biggest in the state and would be large enough to supply 3,750 homes with electricity at once. According to an Arizona Republic article, Gotfried said Freeport plans to sell the power to APS and APS will then sell power back to the Bagdad mine under a 25-year contract. According to a 2008 public Freeport company report, energy costs represented 25% of the company's expenses, with the purchase of 8 million megawatt-hours of electricity and 250 million gallons of diesel fuel in 2008 alone.

Speaking of the potential advantages of solar projects, Freeport spokesman Eric Kinne-berg was quoted as saying solar power "will be a good step forward in the company's efforts to expand the role of alternative-energy sources through initiatives at our mining operations."

There is a significant difference besides size between the two Freeport-APS partnerships. In Ajo, generated energy will be utilized by APS throughout its whole system as needed. In Bagdad, the generated energy will flow back to Freeport mining operations there.

APS currently has 14 alternative-energy sites underway or planned in Arizona. They include solar, wind, biomass, and biogas projects.

Copyright 2011 Ajo Copper News, Ajo, Arizona. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: March 30, 2011

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