Solar farm

Gabe Torres of Tucson Electric Power (left) discusses some project particulars at Wednesday's groundbreaking.

Before it produces any energy, the Avalon solar farm that kicked off construction Wednesday on a desert patch north of Sahuarita was all about numbers:

•Its $100 million construction phase will provide 300 jobs, mostly to local workers, and after completion, four permanent maintenance and security positions.

•It will provide enough power for 7,000 homes.

•It will kick in $4 million in property taxes over the 20 years that Albuquerque-based owner Avalon Solar Partners has contracted with Tucson Electric Power.

•It's estimated to produce $325,000 in county sales tax during installation.

Also known as the Pima Mine Road Solar Generating Facility, the 35-megawatt, direct-current operation will begin supplying energy to TEP's power grid late this year. Its size and scope is on par with TEP's Avra Valley Solar Generating Station commissioned in December 2012, and will further reduce dependence on coal- and gas-fired turbines, said Jeff Krauss, spokesman for the company's utility scale/renewable resources division.

According to a project fact sheet, zero-emission solar production at the Sahuarita photovoltaic plant will save the atmosphere from more than 53,000 tons of carbon release annually, the equivalent of taking 11,000 cars off the road.

In addition to the obvious, there are other benefits just as notable, officials said at a brief groundbreaking ceremony at the site owned by Asarco. It is about 1.5 miles north of the Climax Molybdenum Technology Center and not visible to traffic. The land, also used for cattle grazing, is among the flattest in the region and ideal for a solar farm.

Representatives of the three companies involved in the project gathered with two dozen elected officials, town leaders and others to herald the first co-op of its kind in Arizona.

“It's an incredible marriage of mining and renewable energy,” said M. Lee Allison, director of the Arizona Geological Survey, noting that demand for base metals is growing by 5 percent a year for cell phones and other popular items, faster than at any other time in history.

“We'll need local resources to move energy so it seems fitting that they're building this next to a copper mine.”

The ability to produce clean, renewable energy locally decreases costs and reduces the carbon footprint in addition to providing jobs, he said. “It's the new environmentalism.”

Although Arizona is well-endowed with mineral resources and its solar and wind assets are among the country's best, it doesn't have a lot of private land, noted Mary Poulton, head of University of Arizona's Mining and Geological Engineering Department and the new Institute for Mineral Resources.

“We have to be efficient and clever at developing.”

The Pima Mine Road facility will occupy 500 acres surrounded by nearly 1,500 more acres of vacant Asarco land, where there's room for more solar development, Krauss said. Clenara is negotiating with TEP to do one more 10-megawatt installation, and looking to replicate agreements with owners of mining and/or agricultural land elsewhere.

At the Pima Mine Road plant, construction noise will mostly involve truck traffic; dust will be controlled by spray trucks, and longterm, by the planting of native grass, Clenara noted.

The company will also install a small solar plant at nearby Asarco Mineral Discovery Center using the same type of photovoltaic panels, and an exhibit explaining their benefits will be featured there.

Kitty Bottemiller | 547-9732