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U.S. interior secretary touts giant Gila Bend solar plant’s economic impact

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar greets those joining him at the Solana Generating Station. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Testa)

GILA BEND – While touring a solar power generating station that will provide power to tens of thousands of Arizona homes, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday that America’s embrace of renewable energy will create jobs and boost the economy.

“This is the kind of thing that could bring about a huge revolution in energy for the United States of America,” Salazar said after a tour of the Solana Generating Station, which is under construction and expected to be completed in 2013.

About 1,000 people are currently employed in construction jobs at the 3-square-mile station. Five-hundred more will be hired over the next few months, said Manuel Sanchez, CEO of the Abengoa, an international technology company that received a $1.45 billion loan from the federal government in 2010 to build the plant.

Abengoa has invested $100 million in research and development of solar energy and plans to invest $200 million more, Sanchez said. The company will sell the power to Arizona Public Service.

When the station opens, it will provide 65 permanent jobs, according to the Department of the Interior.

“The 1,700 jobs that are going to be created for this project are real jobs,” Salazar said. “We’re making believers out of the skeptics.”

The plant’s employees don’t just include the on-site construction workers, Salazar said, but also those of suppliers from 23 states across the country.

The plant, about 12 miles west of Gila Bend, is expected to generate 280 megawatts of power, enough for 70,000 Arizona homes.

The station will also be the largest U.S. solar power plant to store energy, with the ability to power its grid for up to six hours in the dark. When complete, it will look like a reflective lake of 3,200 sun-panel modules.

Salazar spent much of his tour in the plant’s solar collector assembly building, where enormous mirror troughs are being mounted on platforms in assembly lines to create the solar panels. Salazar drilled a screw into one of the modules and took a detour from the scheduled tour route to shake hands with a group of workers.

Since 2009, Salazar has approved 27 large renewable energy projects, including 16 solar power projects, four wind farms and seven geothermal facilities.

“You never saw this three years ago,” Salazar said, pointing to a massive line of solar panels.

Gila Bend, which has about 1,900 residents, is about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix along Interstate 8.

Mayor Ron Henry said he wants Gila Bend to be known as the solar capital of the world.

“Our economy has been hurt quite a bit,” Henry said. “A lot of younger generation people have moved out looking for jobs in other areas. But this has really helped out a lot.”

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