CALS Identifies Solar Sites with Greatest Potential

Solar installation in New Mexico. (Photo by Mark Apel)
Solar installation in New Mexico. (Photo by Mark Apel)

Cochise County is the first in Arizona to incorporate a geospatial solar-energy site analysis into its comprehensive land use plan, identifying several areas with the greatest potential for generating utility-scale renewable energy.

The GIS computer model initially developed by the University of Arizona for the Cochise County analysis will be used to assess the solar energy potential of every other county in the state. The UA geospatial maps pinpoint rural sites that are most promising for solar energy production.

With an abundance of sunshine and wide open spaces, Arizona could be the nation’s solar energy capital. But not every sun-soaked patch of land is right for a solar farm. If it’s too sloped, sandy or remote, investors are not interested. They seek specific physical and economic conditions – including nearby transmission lines and roads.

The Cochise County Planning Department asked the university’s Cochise County Cooperative Extension to conduct an analysis of the 6,200-square-mile jurisdiction. Mark B. Apel, community resource development agent, spearheaded the project that was funded by a federal grant. Arizona Cooperative Extension is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the UA.

Apel joined the faculty of Arizona Cooperative Extension in 2007. Before that he was with the Cochise County Planning Department for a decade. The goal of the project was to analyze fundamental details about a site to determine its real-world potential for utility-scale solar energy production.

“Our database computer system allows us to map data geospatially – so data is portrayed visually on a map,” Apel said.

Layers of existing county, state and federal data are combined to create GIS shapefiles with color-coded polygons indicating high, medium or low suitability for siting utility-scale solar facilities. Planners and communities can then add their own local data, selecting criteria such as ownership, floodplains, washes, wildlife habitat and corridors, recreation areas, archaeological sites, farmland and residential developments.

The Cochise County maps show significant opportunity for solar development around Sierra Vista. The Willcox area also has many areas of high suitability, partly because of the higher density of roads for site access, compared to a smaller community like Cochise, he said.

“Using computer modeling, we can eliminate land that we know would never work – and see where the areas of highest potential are,” he said. “Once the more promising sites are identified, rural communities can get solar developers to look more carefully.

Read the rest of this April 5, 2013 UANews article at the link below.

Date released: 
Apr 25 2013
Contact: 
Mark Apel