Saturday, April 16, 2011

Arizona Solar Farm Fails to Get Support

What many observers see as solar energy's future is on a collision course with today's economic angst and environmental fears in a far-flung section of the Avra Valley.

There, a Spanish-based company that's partially owned by General Electric is proposing to build a solar energy farm big enough to serve power to 4,500 homes across the Tucson area.

The owners of Fotowadio Renewable Ventures see this project - to build 96,000 photovoltaic solar panels on 305 acres - as a linchpin for the future of solar here. But neighbors who have watched their home values drop during the recession fear the plant could make the declines worse.

This could be the second of 10 such solar energy projects of differing sizes from various firms from which Tucson Electric Power has contracted to buy power. They are in various stages of development, a TEP spokesman said.

An official with the city, whose water utility is leasing the land to the Spanish company, calls the Avra Valley solar farm as low-impact an energy supply as can be imagined. He points out it comes amidst growing concerns about imported oil, nuclear power and greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired plants.

The project would lie three to four miles west of the Tucson Mountains.

"We were approached by a third party who thought this looks like a good place for solar," said Chris Avery, a principal assistant city attorney. "This looks like perhaps the best place in the region we can find for the largest-scale solar project in the region. If we can't find a place to put the first large-scale solar project in the region, where do we put the rest?" Avery added.

But after a year of neighborhood, Pima County and state meetings, the company is still struggling to win over many of the homeowners living across the street from its site.

The county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote April 19 on a permit needed for the project because its current zoning is for low-density housing, farming or other rural uses.

A county hearing examiner has recommended approval of the project. But many although not all neighbors of the still-unfinished Tierra Linda subdivision say they're worried that the solar farm will be ugly, glare-producing and heat-generating.

Tierra Linda residents have watched their home values drop by $100,000 or more since the subdivision was developed at the peak of the housing boom in the mid-2000s.

Today, three- to five-bedroom homes that once fetched $400,000 to $500,000 are going for $350,000 or less. Only 57 of the 170 lots in the subdivision have homes. At least 40 vacant lots have been foreclosed. Many streets are empty.

The neighbors are also distrustful of the project because they didn't learn it existed until after the solar firm had negotiated a city lease and an agreement to sell power to TEP.

The solar company has won some neighbors' support or non-opposition by promising to build a nearly mile-long wall to block views of the plant, among a host of mitigation measures. But many others say the wall itself will be ugly, although the company will shield it with landscaping.

"Their attitude is wrong. They are going about it the wrong way," said Fred Fox, a 78-year-old retired geologist in Tierra Linda. "They are going to put up a wall eight feet tall, without ever thinking about what the people want and how it will lower property values. They are looking at it from the point of view that if you guys make enough noise, we'll try to make you feel better about it."

Rick Westfall, a non-Tierra Linda resident who owns 10 acres directly southeast of the project site, worries that the project will devalue his property so badly that he'll never be able to sell. He asked FRV without success to buy his site for millions of dollars, or to lease it.

"I walked through a small solar facility in Las Vegas in June 2010, and it felt 10 to 15 degrees hotter," said Westfall, an 18-year resident of the Avra Valley area.

"It will absorb the sun's heat. If it raises the temperature here 10 to 15 degrees it will make it unbearable," he said.

But FRV officials said numerous studies have shown that solar panels have a negligible impact on the heat island effect that causes temperatures to rise in urban areas. They said these systems operate quietly, with no air emissions, and produce little glare because they absorb light.

While no studies exist on solar farms' impact on home values, the company said one study found that putting wind farms near homes had little to no impact on property values. Tierra Linda residents say that isn't relevant.

Tim Lasocki, an FRV vice president, called the Avra Valley solar farm a new solar model, supplying a large number of people as compared to rooftop panels powering individual homes. Projects such as this lie close to the power grid, and don't require significant investments in infrastructure, Lasocki said.

"Our goal is to demonstrate that this kind of project is desirable and compatible with the idea of being a good neighbor for neighboring communities," he said. "It's closer to the places which would actually use the electricity, as opposed to being in the middle of the desert."


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