In many ways, Northern Arizona – and Coconino County in particular – is poised to harvest great benefits from renewable energy potential that outpaces the potential in much of the rest of the country. But the first wave of utility-scale projects has met with some resistance – and it has sent local land use planners to the drawing board.
Coconino County has a draft of its new renewable energy guidelines out for review in a document called “Energy Element,” available on the web. County planners will conduct hearings about the plan April 24. So far, a variety of stakeholders have provided input, including representatives from the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Sierra Club, energy developers, and residents near Williams who were opposed to the new Perrin Ranch wind farm near their backyards.
The impetus for the plan comes partly from a new state policy that says all county comprehensive plans must address plans for energy production. But more urgently, county planners are seeing a surge in applications for renewable energy projects on a variety of scales – from home-based to utility scale – and they have already seen that they need to have some local land use standards in place: “There was struggle over Perrin Ranch,” said County Planner Kate Morley, “so they’re really looking for policies.”
Success Story, With Hard Lessons
Steve Stengel is a spokesman for NextEra Energy Resources, the company that is building the 22,000-acre Perrin Ranch wind farm. Hailed as a cornerstone of APS’s expanding renewable energy portfolio in Northern Arizona, the farm’s 62 turbines have the capacity to produce up to 99 megawatts of power, about enough energy for 25,000 homes, but will actually produce roughly half that amount.
Stengel said the Williams site handily met the three main requirements of a good site for wind development: a customer, namely APS, abundant land, and close proximity to a high voltage transmission system – there’s one just three miles away.
But all was not smooth at the project’s inception. Scattered residents living near the project say they were caught off guard and misled about Perrin Ranch; the destruction of their viewshed and disruption of the local environment happened quickly, and was too costly to fight.
“I guess we spent $15,000 fighting for a year and a half,” said Linda Webb, spokesperson for the Canyon Country Coalition that banded, unsuccessfully in the end, to oppose Perrin Ranch. They argued against the wind farm for its effects on their own quality of life, which they say NextEra downplayed. They also fought it on economic grounds, saying the energy potential wasn’t worth the expense to taxpayers. And they argued for environmental reasons, based on bird and bat mortality studies as well as physical damage to the vegetation and terrain.
Although the Coalition lost its fight against Perrin Ranch, Coconino County planners were listening – and the arguments fueled their focus on the Energy Element plan.
Morley said even at this early stage of forging a path forward for sustainable local energy production, one reality is clear: the less, the better.
“Our number one goal needs to be to use less energy. That’s really where the push needs to come from,” Morley said. And so while the county is generally supportive of wind and solar development projects across the area, county planners now clearly recognize that even renewable energy development carries costs. So they’re pushing as much as ever for conservation, particularly through the Coconino County Sustainable Building Program that emphasizes energy conservation and efficiency in new and existing buildings.
That said, renewable power sources are getting ever closer to being economically sustainable compared to traditional fuels – and the draft plan describes an impressive, newly minted portfolio of local wind and solar installations.
Costs Coming Down
Stengel said wind power is increasingly cost effective as the cost of turbines comes down, and the turbines themselves become more efficient.
“You have longer blades,” he said. “You’re able to more efficiently capture the energy that’s in the wind.”
And there are incentives on the business side, he said. For companies developing wind energy, one of the biggest benefits comes in the form of federal tax credits. For customers like APS, it’s the inherent stability of the resource: “The fuel is free,” Stengel said. “They know for the duration of their contract what their cost for that power is going to be, verses fossil fuels that are volatile in nature with prices that go up and down.”
Solar power, like wind, is coming down in cost the more it is tried and true. Already, there have been drastic reductions in surcharges to APS customer bills that help to fund renewable energy projects, Wool said – from original levels of around $5.00 to around $0.70 now.
But with solar, Arizona is riding the leading edge of a steep learning curve. The APS Flagstaff Community Power Project – part of its effort to achieve statewide renewable energy goals – includes two solar installations. One is a rooftop-and-ground combination array at Cromer Elementary School, and the other is a community-sized array along with 125 residential rooftop units in Doney Park. Together they may produce enough power for up to 400 homes, but their larger value probably lies in what they’ll teach APS.
“One of the things we’re trying to study is what happens when you put a high concentration of solar power in a single area.” said Dan Wool, an APS spokesman.
He explained that traditionally, energy flows one way – from a power plant out to homes. But with distributed solar panels, “energy starts to go two ways. The power plant is at a customer’s home.” And managing that multi-directional flow of power can be challenging, especially during the times it fluctuated, on variably cloudy days and the transition from day to night. Arizona is the perfect place to iron out such details, he said.
“Arizona is the solar capital of the world, so Arizona is an area of the country that others wanting to do solar look to as a leader,” he said. FBN
Coconino County’s Energy Element
APS Flagstaff Community Power Project
Canyon Country Coalition:
Link to cool renewable energy map: http://www.aps.com/main/green/choice/interactive-map.html#