SRP, AES aim to reduce carbon footprint through new Pinal County solar plant

Jeremy Beren

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The ribbon-cutting ceremony at Central Line Solar.Courtesy of Salt River Project

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Eloy, Ariz.) — The Salt River Project on Wednesday unveiled the Central Line Solar facility, a new 100-megawatt solar plant in Pinal County.

Central Line Solar, which straddles the cities of Eloy and Coolidge, is part of SRP's expanding Sustainable Energy Offering. The Tempe-based utilities corporation presented the new plant before representatives from 21 of its largest customers, including Apple, Boeing, Target, PepsiCo, Arizona State University, and the United Dairymen of Arizona.

"Our electric grid, on the generation side, (has been) primarily a fossil-based industry," SRP Chief Customer Executive Jim Pratt told NewsBreak. "Now you're trying to transition to renewables, and do it in a smart way where you manage the reliability, but also be able to start to move quicker on all those sustainability goals so that you're truly reducing carbon intensity. A place like Central Line is a foundational part of that."

In a press release regarding the unveiling, SRP described its Sustainable Energy Offering as a way for some customers — like those represented at Wednesday's event — to opt for carbon-free, renewable energy to power their business. With Central Line Solar going online Wednesday, SRP's Sustainable Energy Offering now delivers solar energy to 33 companies and municipalities covering 19 separate industries, according to the release.

Pratt spoke with NewsBreak about the effort made to bring these various companies together under the Central Line umbrella. The process began in earnest nearly five years ago, as many of SRP's biggest customers began to explore acquiring access to sustainable energy resources.

"One of the things that we started to hear from a lot of our larger customers, what we would call commercial or large industrials, was they were starting to develop their own sustainability goals," Pratt said. "Some of them are very sophisticated, very large, they have their own programs. Others would come and say 'listen, we need help with this. How can you guys possibly help us do this?'"

Central Line Solar's grand opening serves as a respite for SRP following a surprising Arizona Corporation Commission vote on April 12, which denied the company a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility to expand its Coolidge Generation Station into the community of Randolph. SRP came under scrutiny from a number of environmental activists and organizations for its plan to nearly double the size of its Coolidge facility, and four out of five Corporation Commissioners voted down the proposal.

An SRP spokesperson did not offer an on-the-record comment regarding the vote or the company's next steps.

For the Central Line Solar project, SRP worked with the AES Corporation, a Fortune 500 firm that is among the world's largest power generation and distribution companies. Though AES also has natural gas interests, it will own and will operate the Central Line plant, according to SRP's media release. AES also handles energy generation at SRP's East Line and West Line Solar plants — the latter is expected to come online in October.

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Courtesy of Salt River Project

Woody Rubin, the Chief Development Officer for AES’ Clean Energy Business Unit, explained to NewsBreak that time is of the essence when it comes to bringing new renewable energy facilities online and accelerating the development of more facilities resembling Central Line Solar. He described this transition away from fossil fuels one of the fastest that has ever been witnessed in the energy industry.

"I think about it as like the transition from analog to digital," Rubin said. "These are fast-ramping, very cost-effective systems ... it's great to see our corporate and industrial bases (grow) more aware and more forward-leaning in terms of corporate responsibility and making sure that their energy usage is keeping pace with our society's energy goals."

Rubin detailed how the Central Line facility is the newest functioning example of how the years-long AES-SRP partnership continues to evolve. Technological advancements integrated into the new plant include First Solar's coated thin-film panels, which are tailored to boost efficiency during Arizona's harsh summers.

"SRP's done a great job engaging and listening to their customer demand," Rubin said. "It's a classic example of developing a project to meet (the needs of) the customers of your customer."

SRP reported that around 170 local jobs were created during the new facility's construction. The company further expects Central Line Solar to help it achieve certain sustainability goals — such as a 90 percent reduction in carbon intensity by 2050 — with Pratt explaining that thousands more megawatts of solar batteries could be added to SRP's grid by 2035. And Pinal County, on the whole, stands to benefit — SRP projects that Central Line will produce roughly $15 million in property tax revenue.

"Our mission is to provide sustainable, affordable, and reliable power and water to the customers of the communities we serve," Pratt said. "The challenge for us is to make sure we balance all three of those in a way that we take great care of our customers ... we're not going to take risks that would cause us to not believe that we can maintain the (power) grid and operate the grid reliably. When you consider who SRP is, this is really all about doing things to benefit our customers."

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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