By Nolan Madden
State Senator Carlyle Begay, R-District 7, recently sponsored energy production legislation that could signal a major infrastructure shift for the region through the formation of a proposed power district in Navajo County.
The bill was drafted Dec. 30, 2015, and has since been tabbed as SB1506.
By loose definition, a power district is a utility improvement zone organized to set up and administer a project to produce and distribute electric power to consumers. Power districts also function to calculate and collect assessments for funds to build a power plant, which are then administered by a municipality or county.
For Navajo County, the bill would provide current and prospective industries and residents with a privately owned option for more affordable and reliable electricity and Internet connectivity.
Skyler Careaga, chief executive officer of SEC Power Corporation in Snowflake, said that his company was specifically founded for that reason.
“One of the things we observed in this area is the long-standing issue with the power grid and how many times it has gone down over the years,” said Careaga.
“I had a project here that our team had been sitting on for quite some time and, in order to make it come through, some of the things we had to put in place to make it happen are involved in this legislation.
“Begay saw a need for it, and I was happy to have him sponsor it,” said Careaga.
Careaga and his team compiled a report detailing the extensive number of utility pole power outages occurring county-wide between 2006 and 2009. It revealed that electricity customers in Navajo County were without power for more than 6.4 million minutes in 2009 alone–nearly 4,500 combined days–with causes ranging from squirrel and bird damage to fallen tree limbs, automobile collisions, lightning strikes, and vandalism resulting in an estimated 113,000 hours, or more than 4,710 days without electrical power during those years.
“If anybody outside of a rural environment were to read the report, they’d have to laugh at the causes, because it sounds ridiculous. Bigger cities just don’t have those types of issues,” he remarked.
Careaga noted that such outages could be avoided with the power redundancy outlined in Begay’s bill, which proposes electricity generation and distribution for all county customers by way of a solar farm, using photovoltaics and natural gas turbines at The Espinosa Power Ranch, SEC’s 171-acre facility located 11 miles northeast of Snowflake.
According to Careaga, the approved project would break ground this summer and begin delivering electricity to customers within a three-year time frame, with the production capacity of more than 200 megawatts. Within five years, SEC’s plans would include building a more than 120-megawatt system of photovoltaics on site and continuing to expand as newer technologies evolve.
More than potentially spurring the local economy, the proposed power district promises to achieve its goals without increasing local taxes; it will be privately funded and developed with no added tax bonds, as Careaga noted further.
“We made sure that we secured funding for the project beforehand. All that is pending now is the legislation which would allow us to build the facility,” he explained.
“We still have to discuss with the Navajo County Board of Supervisors what we plan to do. We’re looking to contribute to the community. We put in the infrastructure, and we operate the facility. We’re not looking to take any of the county’s money, like some other utility providers.”
Careaga said the project’s construction scope involves installing a main underground fiber optic line, which would span from Winslow south to Pinetop and contain IT access points along its course.
This feature is significant, Careaga said, as it will provide the county with dedicated high-speed IT service, particularly useful for secured first-responder and other emergency communications, in line with the recently approved regional dispatch center project.
“The county currently has a 5MB connection to the hospital in Show Low, so I was very happy to accommodate that. The IT line is a secondary feature itself, but it’s a primary part of the benefits for the county,” said Careaga.
Service distribution lines would be run from the solar farm in phases, first in Snowflake-Taylor, next through Holbrook, and later into Show Low and Pinetop, north through St. Johns and finally into Winslow.
Careaga designed the system’s solar technology to take advantage of the weather conditions and hours of sunlight unique to northern Arizona, while eliminating dependence on valuable water resources for energy production, resulting in what he says is a projected consumer retail energy cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, with no peak charges.
SEC notes that, as electricity demand increases, and nonrenewable resources become more expensive and/or deplete, photovoltaic power is a reusable and environmentally conscious source for power production, which will provide a cost-efficient alternative to more common turbine-driven conversion processes such as coal and hydroelectric.
“Our initial goal is to provide green energy to the northern part of Arizona and the cities that reside within its county borders. This would in effect make an Arizona county be the first all-green energy consumer in the country.”
Senator Begay was unavailable for comment by press time. However, on paper, his proposal appears to shadow his stated reasons for his transition from the Democratic party to the Republican party in November 2015, namely “better opportunities for district’s education, infrastructure and employment issues.”
By Nolan Madden