P&Z OKs Hualapai Valley Solar plan

KINGMAN - After more than three and a half hours of back-and-forth discussions, the Mohave County Planning & Zoning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval for a major plan amendment and a specific area plan for a 340-megawatt water-cooled concentrating solar power plant proposed for the Red Lake area 25 miles north of Kingman.

More than two dozen audience members spoke on the proposal for the Hualapai Valley Solar power plant, with opponents edging out supporters in terms of sheer numbers.

For their part, Chris Stephens and Greg Bartlett of Hualapai Valley Solar hoped to flesh out their proposal and answer some of the questions concerning the plant's proposed water use and the number of jobs it would create. With the plant's parabolic mirrors expected to cover about three quarters of HVS's 4,000-acre site, Stevens said the plant would use approximately 2,400 acre-feet of water a year to run its "wet-cooled" turbine generators. Stephens was quick to note, however, that his clients were already within their right to use the land for agricultural purposes, which could use much more water. "Just looking at alfalfa, (we would use) between 5 to 8 acre-feet per acre," Stevens said. "Which would bring the total well north of 20-, 25-, 30,000 acre-feet for a farming-type application, whereas this project will use 2,400 acre-feet."

Stephens further argued that, because HVS was seeking an agreement to purchase Kingman's treated wastewater to reduce its water usage, the plant would be "a model project" for the area. Bartlett noted that an independent hydrologist hired to survey the aquifer determined that "at the current rate of usage of our plant and everyone else that draws from the aquifer, there's enough water for a thousand years."

Bartlett answered additional questions regarding the actual economic benefits of the plant, estimating that it would inject more than $20 million into the county and state tax revenues each year, not including revenues to the city of Kingman or any new tourism the plant might generate. At its peak of construction, Bartlett said the plant would generate up to 1,500 construction jobs, with 107 permanent positions created upon the plant's completion.

Asked for some examples of what these permanent jobs might entail, Bartlett listed mirror-washing teams, guards, electricians, and parts and warehouse storage positions in addition to the more highly-skilled technical jobs the plant will require.

Bartlett was also asked why HVS had not sought to build a hybrid or "dry-cooling" system in order to minimize the plant's water usage. Bartlett claimed that the desert's high ambient temperatures would effectively cripple any dry-cooling system, since such systems become increasingly inefficient over 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

"There are no hybrid-cooled power plants in Arizona today, and there are no dry-cooled solar power plants anywhere in the United States today, and I don't think anywhere in the world," Bartlett said. "Above 100 degrees, it's been documented that you can have 20 percent or more loss in the output of your power plant."

Bartlett also contended that a hybrid wet/dry system would cost double the basic wet-cooling system, and would still require the wet-cooling side to run for most of the year. He noted, however, that HVS's proposed wet-cooling system will recycle its water as many as 58 times during the cooling process.

Kingman Mayor John Salem gave further details on the letter of intent he signed agreeing to sell a portion of the city's effluent to the plant. Several speakers had questioned the lack of Salem's signature on the copies they had acquired, but Salem's signature shone on the copy he provided commissioners.

"I'd be happy to sign any of your copies, too," Salem said.

Salem went on to say that while the city hopes to fulfill most of the solar plant's water needs upon its anticipated opening in 2013, he hoped to eventually supply 100 percent of the plant's water.

"As other portions of the city of Kingman come online ... these other portions of town will be able to get off of septic and go back onto the mainline sewer, and over time we hope to be able to supply their entire need with effluent," Salem said. "This is a commitment with the city of Kingman. We are going to do this."

Asked to give a "balance sheet" of the positives and negatives the plant would provide Kingman, Salem argued that the possible glare from the plant's parabolic mirrors was the only negative he could think of, though as a pilot, he contended that the glare would be no worse than the sun shining through his windshield every time he took an early morning flight. On the other side, Salem said the plant would provide untold revenue to Kingman in the form of new jobs, including tertiary jobs unrelated to the construction field.

"For every dollar that comes into our area, I guess it gets turned around six or seven times before it leaves the area," he said. "We are going to realize a significant portion of these dollars when they come here. This is going to be nothing but good for us."

The project's opponents cited many the same concerns they have for months. County resident Susan Bayer displayed a United States Geological Survey abstract from 2006 claiming that the Hualapai aquifer is in decline and that the county General Plan states that the county will only approve power plants using dry-cooling technology in such an event.

Patty Lewis, who had trouble maintaining her composure, argued that the plant would destroy the quality of life for people living in the Red Lake area. "That is an enormous plant, and those people like to watch the stars, they like to have their horses, they like to have their cattle, they like to have their chickens, and everything there will have to be changed if you put this into that residential area," she said.

Verna Schwab argued that the county already has areas zoned for industrial use, and that the plant should go there. Several speakers claimed there were still more questions about the plant than there were solid answers, which prompted a rebuke from District 2 Commissioner Joseph Morabito.

"The arguments that we've heard are 'There're more questions than answers.' I've heard answer after answer," Morabito said. "Maybe the answers you're hearing aren't the answers you like, but there are a lot of answers out there if you'd just listen."

Commissioner Kristal Gibson, also of the second district, said the commission had no jurisdiction over water-use issues, and that concerned residents should send their concerns to the proper state agencies. She further noted that the county has a federal mandate to have a certain percentage of its energy supplied by renewable resources. Conceding to residents' requests to table the project, she said, could end up having serious economic repercussions for the county once the mandatory deadlines have come and gone.

"This area will be fined if we don't step up and meet some requirements ... and we're not giving our community a fighting chance by postponing, delaying, when there are regulations on us to get these things through the pipeline by the end of the year," Gibson said. "We constantly delay, delay, delay, and what's going to happen? Our community members on fixed incomes are going to get astronomical electric bills they can't afford, and they're going to have to move. We have to start thinking about those people."

Dist. 2 Commissioner Mehdi Azarmi made the motion to approve both the General Plan amendment and the specific site plan, and Gibson seconded. The motion passed 8-0, with Carl Flusche excused from the meeting.

A series of items related to the Albiasa concentrated solar plant project near Highway 93 north of Wikieup were removed from Wednesday's agenda due to the county's inability to properly notify all concerned area residents. The proposal will come back before the commission on Oct. 14.