Pinal supervisors move controversial solar project forward

(Source: PinalCentral): Kelly Fisher

After about two hours of discussion — interrupted by more than an hour’s recess — the Pinal County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday approved what could be the first photovoltaic solar and battery-storage hybrid plant in the country.

But the project distressed many nearby residents and left some still discontent with the outcome.

NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based, Fortune 200 energy hub, set what’s now known as the Pinal Central Energy Center in motion in 2014, and the project gained traction last year.

As it’s planned currently, the Pinal Central Energy Center, a subsidiary of NextEra, is slated for construction on a 257-acre site at State Route 287 and Sunshine Boulevard, between Casa Grande and Coolidge, which is adjacent to an existing substation.

NextEra, which will own and operate the plant, contracted with Salt River Project in April to deliver the power generated from the energy center as part of a 20-year agreement.

Project Manager Jess Melin called the Pinal Central Energy Center a “truly cutting edge project,” being the first solar and battery-storage plant to be constructed in the continental United States, according to his research, which is a trend he expects to spread nationally and internationally as the technology advances.

The solar panels combined with a Tesla storage battery make it possible for solar power generated throughout the day to be utilized in peak evening hours.

Melin told PinalCentral that after contracting with a company to build the plant, among other steps on the horizon, he hopes to have it under construction by about November, and have it finished and ready for operation by early to mid-2018.

The project is expected to bring in 100 to 150 construction jobs and create five permanent jobs, ringing in a capital investment of about $50 million and a first year property tax of about $260,000.

Some lingering questions

The plan was approved in two parts: one to rezone the land and the other to approve the planned area development, which locks in what the developers are permitted to build on the site.

Chairman Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, was the lone “nay” vote to one of the two items, citing his concerns regarding the company’s poor communication with surrounding residents over the course of the past year.

One of the biggest hurdles to the project when it began to emerge further into the public eye was Lynda Williams’ realization that the proposed plant would nearly surround her ranch, a home which she built with her late husband about 35 years ago, and where she raised her children and initiated an equine therapy business.

She maintains that she never received notification of any kind of the project, even after pulling out the washer and dryer in her home and anyplace else she could think of to make sure a letter hadn’t slipped through the cracks.

Williams and NextEra finally reached a settlement, which Melin said “both (parties are) happy” with, though he didn’t discuss specifics with PinalCentral.

At a June 15 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, Gilbert Figueroa, retired judge, attorney and Williams’ longtime friend, indicated that “fruitful” discussions led to agreements between Williams and the power company moving forward.

Neither Figueroa nor Williams were present at Wednesday’s meeting.

But Williams’ neighbor, Tom Bagnall, thinks that the company had no choice but to eventually settle with his friend and neighbor, and others are just along for the ride whether they voice their opposition to the project or not.

“I’m not surprised. … It is what it is now,” Bagnall, a longtime opponent of the plan, admitted to PinalCentral after the meeting, adding that Melin strikes him as the kind of person who “bulldozes over everybody.”

He also thought that the recess to further discuss stipulations was “ridiculous,” particularly after Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller brought up some points which they thought should at least warrant the item to be tabled to a later date, pending further consideration of the plan he said NextEra is “going to shove this down our throats.”

Melin cautioned that delaying the project could be “detrimental,” considering contractual obligations.

Rick Miller said, among other concerns, that the project he previously deemed “irresponsible” could have more suitable locations, including some that would not settle along one of the gateways into Coolidge.

He raised questions about the future of SR 287, as well as how it could impact potential businesses looking to plant roots in the area, such as a Walgreens or a Circle K.

Though he urged further consideration, Melin said the company would “absolutely” be amenable to nearby businesses, and Supervisor Todd House, R-Apache Junction, said it “makes complete sense” to him that the city could use it as an advantage to attract businesses.

“The area is already under siege, shall we say,” he said, noting the proximity to the second-largest substation in Arizona and other factors that indicate that the project isn’t going anywhere. “If it does extend into the city of Coolidge, (you) can use (the energy center) as brownie points… I see more ups than downs.”

For the Caywood family, who owns Caywood Farms on East SR 287, the issue apparently arose just last week that there could be fencing which hinders their ability to get water to their property.

Though Melin insisted during the meeting that the company has no plans to obstruct the family’s access to the adjacent canal — and made a point to speak highly of Caywood Farms during the meeting — the Caywoods still left with some unease, having hoped, like Rick Miller and the Bagnalls, that the items could be continued.

“How many more things have we missed?” Nancy Caywood wondered, calling the sudden consideration of the canal a “big red flag.”

Her sister, Patricia Caywood, pointed out that without that water source, 80 acres of their farmland would cease production.

Melin told PinalCentral that stronger communication is “something we’re always working on.”

“I know (our) relationship wasn’t the best with (the) neighbors,” he admitted. “I’m sorry about that. … (Things) became hostile very quickly.

“(We’re) trying to be a good neighbor.”

Bagnall said that, per state law, it could be possible to pull together signatures to circulate petitions and gather enough signatures from eligible voters to bring an item related to the Pinal Central Energy Center to a ballot.

But it was not clear as of press time whether he would take that initiative.

The plant received five letters in opposition, and only one in support.

The supporting letter came from Central Arizona College, where officials hope to tailor a curriculum to area students.

Looking ahead

The plan was originally introduced as a combined solar- and gas-fired plant, but the gas element was dropped over the course of a nearly 90-minute discussion at a Board of Supervisors meeting last October.

Lack of solid answers — or changing answers — previously unhinged residents around the site, but officials of the project insist that that’s normal.

“If you tell them ‘I’m planning on building, you know, this and painting it red,’ and you turn out you have to paint it green, they get angry,” Melin told Planning and Zoning commissioners at a meeting last month. “So in a lot of our conversations, we said we don’t know, because we didn’t know at that point. And as we learn things … once we’re sure what we plan on doing, then we share it. So it’s a fine line with, you want to take care of people, but you don’t want to set expectations too high.”

Any additional development would have to go through a new series of permits, but the company has no plans at this time to expand the plant, according to a presentation given at the supervisors meeting.

Pinal Central Energy Center is set to become one of a few other recent ventures the power company has sought in Arizona, joining the Perrin Ranch Wind Energy Center in Coconino County and Pima Storage Project.