In anticipation of the GTM Solar Summit in Phoenix next week, GTM continues its look into the Arizona solar industry.

First Solar’s four-month construction time for its 17-megawatt thin-film Paloma solar facility in Gila Bend, Arizona, was “the fastest the industry has ever witnessed, to our knowledge, anywhere,” according to Program Manager Ted Geisler of Arizona Public Service (APS), the state’s biggest utility and the facility’s financial backer.

Paloma, Geisler said, was the result of “a unique partnership between First Solar as the developer, APS as the owner, and the local municipality.” Gila Bend’s Solar Field Overlay Zone (SFOZ), Geisler said, is a uniquely streamlined approach to permitting.

SFOZ was developed, Gila Bend Director of Planning and Economic Development Director Eric Fitzer explained, because leaders of Gila Bend (official population 1,980) watched Abengoa’s nearby Solana solar power plant take two years to get through land-use permitting and decided they could do better.

“Our Planning and Ordinance Commission approved the SFOZ unanimously in February 2010,” Fitzer said. “And then our Town Council approved it unanimously.”

Fitzer has taken four projects through the process. All were approved unanimously. First Solar’s Paloma facility and Solon Corporation’s 17-megawatt Cotton Center One are operational, he said. Two others, SolarReserve’s 40-megawatt Cotton Center Three and Four and Silverado Power’s 195-megawatt Octavia Greenworks, are seeking financial backing.

“The way the overlay zone works is it fits over existing entitlements,” Fitzer explained. “You go straight through the zoning process. And when we do that overlay zone, we do site planning as well,” he said. “You are required by the ordinance to submit an engineered site plan.”

With two planning processes running concurrently, Fitzer said, “the ordinance is approved for the zoning and the site plan is approved after the zoning. That typically takes six to eight weeks. It’s pretty easy. The site plan itself is pretty rudimentary.”

Issues that slow permitting elsewhere are simplified in Gila Bend. Because project sites “have been agricultural land for 70 years,” Fitzer said, “archeological surveys are done in a couple of weeks” during the initial planning process. Because the solar projects largely displace water-intensive agriculture, Fitzer expects  “a net benefit in water use” of perhaps 75 percent to 90 percent or more. And, he added, “we don’t have many endangered species.”

Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter Director Sandy Bahr does not object to the regulatory streamlining. “The Solar Field Overlay Zones make a lot of sense. They establish upfront that the community believes that solar is an appropriate use,” she noted. And, importantly, “the process still includes a citizen review session.”

Fitzer personally reviews plans “in two days or less.” Once Fitzer is satisfied with a plan, the developer can start submitting engineering or civil and building plans. Public hearings at the planning and zoning commission and the Town Council follow. That process is typically complete within four weeks.

Gila Bend consultant Jacobs Engineering reviews civil plans within a week. With their approval, Fitzer issues a civil permit. “We’ve approved civil plans in less than a month.”

And, Fitzer explained, “even when we’re going through the civil permitting process, developers can submit their building plan” and are allowed “to piecemeal their submittal.” That, he said, “allows them to keep moving through the process.”

Gila Bend consultant Brown and Associates reviews trench details. When Fitzer gets that approval, “we actually allow developers to trench along with grading under their civil permit.” Trenching, Fitzer said, “is one of the big, involved things. Being able to do those two things together is huge.”

For building permits, “we always go through two reviews” so “you always have a second review to address the first review comments,” Fitzer said. “We permit all the way to the point of interconnection.”

Gila Bend requires developers to meet the 2006 National Building Code and the 2005 National Electrical Code, but “we allow developers to use newer codes, especially if it decreases costs or is something that is going to benefit the project,” Fitzer said. “2012 codes are going to have way more to address solar development but if you’re meeting the newer code, you’re meeting the 2006 code.”

Solar has won the support of the Gila Bend community after sales tax revenues grew 100 percent, mostly in 2010 and 2011, and 200 locals started careers in solar project construction, Fitzer said.

There are at least seventeen proposed projects representing at least a gigawatt of solar on the Gila Bend map. However, “we’re only going to be able to develop so many projects for APS,” Fitzer noted.

Arizona SEIA Chair Lon Huber explained why. “One, load has been relatively flat in Arizona; two, export opportunities to California may be dwindling; three, we have a very aggressive energy efficiency standard which further reduces load growth; and four, we’re past our renewable portfolio targets.”

Fitzer and Gila Bend town manager Rick Buss, believing there is nevertheless opportunity in the California market, created the Gila Bend Transmission Initiative to “export electricity.” They are talking to California’s System Operator and with merchant transmission providers about building a line across the nearby California border to an interconnection point in Blythe.

“We have a 2,200-megawatt combined cycle natural gas plant within our community, the second largest natural gas power plant in the United States,” Fitzer said. “We’re looking at the gas plant as firming up the renewables that we can develop. That’s the value added.”