Western Station Transforms Sunbeams Into Electricity
Governors Put Party Affiliation Aside to Explore Renewable Energy
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page A03
SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. -- The National Weather Service on Thursday issued a heat alert for most of the state, with a predicted high temperature of 114 degrees under the relentless Arizona sun. Tom Hansen, of course, was delighted.
"Some states have oil. Some have coal. Here in Arizona, we've got sun," said Hansen, a vice president of Tucson Electric Power Co., as he squinted through heavy-duty sunglasses. "And now we're using that resource to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels."
On an utterly shadeless expanse of high desert plateau near the New Mexico border, Hansen manages America's largest solar-powered electric generating station. It looks at first glance like a long, long row of windowpanes propped up to face the sun. In fact, each "window" is an array of photovoltaic cells that generate electric current when exposed to the light.
The Springerville site is an experiment, an effort to transform solar energy generation from the small rooftop systems familiar today to a utility-scale operation that can eventually produce as much electricity as today's giant coal- and gas-fired power plants. And Tucson Electric's sun-powered generating station is just one experiment throughout the western United States seeking to generate electricity from renewable fuels.
The Western Governors' Association approved an aggressive new plan this summer, jointly proposed by Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), that commits the region to huge increases in renewable energy production over the next two decades. The plan calls for government funding, tax breaks, regulatory changes and new ways of billing customers to encourage electric utility companies to move away from oil, coal and natural gas. Here, for example, electric companies have been authorized to add a surcharge to each bill -- for residential customers, it's about 35 cents a month -- to pay for building renewable-fuel plants.
The drive for renewable fuels focuses on windmills, solar cells, geothermal energy -- that is, underground steam and pressurized hot water, such as the pools that feed Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park -- and biomass, which is any agricultural product that can be burned. Tucson Electric and some other regional utilities are also drilling gas wells in big-city trash dumps; the landfills give off a methane gas that can be piped away and burned in some power plants.
In a sense, this push seems counterintuitive. The western states, after all, have more oil, coal and natural gas that any other part of the country. Why should they lead the search for replacements?
"For one thing, we've got a more delicate environmental situation," said Dick Burdette, director of Nevada's state energy department. "In a high altitude with dry air, we can't accept a pollutant load from burning fossil fuels. We need alternatives badly."
Beyond that, the western states happen to be blessed with lots of renewable resources: the blazing desert sun, the driving winds sweeping across vast stretches of treeless prairie, and the large geothermal pools boiling beneath a land that is much younger, geologically, than the eastern United States. "The American West is the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy," Richardson said.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., tends to support that boast. Its energy maps show that the eastern half of the continental United States has the strongest potential for using biomass for power production -- growing crops specifically to burn in generating stations. The western plains and the Rocky Mountain region, in contrast, are full of potential sites for geothermal plants, wind farms -- large collections of windmills -- and for solar farms, such as the long chain of photovoltaic cells in Springerville.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
In a cow pasture on the high desert plateau of eastern Arizona, Tucson Electric engineer Tom Hansen stands in America's largest sun-powered electric-generating station.
(T.r. Reid -- The Washington Post)