The Apache Solar Project is just months away from providing renewable energy for all six Arizona G&T Cooperative Class A members, and an additional subscription from Electrical District 2, through Arizona Electric Power Cooperative (AEPCO).
Geoff Oldfather, Arizona G&T Cooperative communications and public relations manager, said
that member distribution cooperatives are required to meet new renewable energy standards in their respective states of Arizona and California.
“Each of the six member cooperatives (Sulphur Springs Valley Electric, Graham County, Duncan Valley, Mohave and TRICO, all in Arizona, and Anza in California) have subscribed” to the project, he said, as well as the 3 MW subscription from Electrical District 2 in Pinal County.
The 20 MW (megawatt) solar photovoltaic project sits on about 150 acres of land owned by AEPCO, near Cochise, on the east side of Highway 191. More than 134 acres include solar panels.
Oldfather said planning for the project began in 2015, with the construction permit granted in April 2016. The contract for engineering, procurement and construction was awarded in November 2016 to Swinerton Renewable Energy (SRE).
Swinerton Site Supervisor Kenny Frego said, “We do the design, construction, testing and bringing the project online. We started the clearing and grubbing of the land in March,” he said.
After the land was cleared, 11,000 piers (posts) were set, and then pipe torque tubes were attached to the top of a each line of piers.
Last Wednesday, four crews of three Swinerton employees in each attached solar panels to the pipe torque tube, which contains a single-axis tracking system to allow the panels to follow the sun, Frego said.
In mid May, nine inverters – which change the DC (direct current) generated by the panels to AC (alternating current) power – were placed in the nine sections of the solar panels. Combiners, that gather the energy from the panels, were placed near the inverters, Swinerton Project Engineer Sean Begay said. The inverter will then send the AC to the power station transformer, so that it may be sent to the grid.
Begay said crews install the panels, and a quality-control employee follows to check that everything is installed correctly.
Last week, a total of 109 employees were onsite, however that number will “ramp up by 20 or 25 more people between now and the third week in June,” as those employees finish installing the panels.
Frego said employees are now installing about 3,800 panels a day.
“At peak, they install about 4,000 a day. This project has a total of 77,053 panels,” he noted.
“We are looking at the end of June for substantiative mechanical completion, except electrical. And the transformer will arrive in August, so we must wait for that” to finish construction, Frego said. “We will also re-seed with native grasses to keep the dust down after that.”
The solar array should begin producing power to send to the grid in September, Oldfather said.
Until that time, AEPCO's Wildlife Viewing area, next to the new solar project, will be closed. It will re-open when the solar array begins production in September.
Frego said about 45 to 50 percent of his employees are local hires.
Begay said, “We bring our main support staff with us between projects – mostly superintendents, foremen and lead men, and the rest we hire locally through Aerotek. We teach these local hires so they get the basics, and as they increase in efficiency, they may go along with us to other projects.”
Frego said they will be moving to a project in Alabama after Apache is finished. “Some will move on with us; we employ the guys who meet our standards. Thirty percent of the people from here went to Minnesota with us (for another solar project this year).”
Employee Diego Leal, of Willcox, who was installing panels last week, said he has been with Swinerton for a year.
“I have traveled a lot with Swinerton. It's nice to come home and do work here for a while, except for the wind. We have to stop work when the wind starts blowing up the dust,” Leal said.
The project brings a boost to the local economy not only by hiring locals, but also by “doing a lot of local business. We get supplies, such as hardware and tools, in Willcox. We have done several jobs here (such as the Red Horse Solar Project), and we know the suppliers. We have also used local contractors for clearing the land – Arizona Green Waste and Cochise Farm and Ranch – for the cleaning and grubbing. And all of their hands are local hands,” Frego said.
“This is a utility-grade scale solar project – not rooftop-sized. The larger scale makes it less expensive. The price of panels goes down, as well,” Oldfather said. “We were seeking economy of scale and we have achieved it.”
He added, “All of the power for this project is spoken for. We are building on our own property, so we didn't have to buy acres, and we are able to hold down costs. All we do is for the benefit of our members and the people they serve. We are very proud of our project!”