Change is in the wind for the quiet border town of San Luis, AZ.
The farming community may soon be home to a massive solar wind tower – the sheer enormity of which would make it a new Arizona landmark.
“This is going to be something big. I don’t think people realize the magnitude until it happens,” San Luis Mayor Gerardo Sanchez told CBS 5 Investigates.
At 2,235 feet tall and 1,200 feet at its base, the tower would be the second tallest structure in the world, second only to the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai. It would sit directly across the border with Mexico and cover 100 acres of desert.
The gigantic silo is projected to produce as much clean energy a year as the Hoover Dam using hybrid solar and wind technology, according to Chief Executive Officer Ron Pickett of Solar Wind Energy Tower, Inc.
“The tower is taller and wider than it needs to be to make money, but it’s as tall and as wide as we predict it needs to be to have a 2-to-1 cash flow to support the financing of the first tower,” Pickett told CBS 5 Investigates over the phone.
Mayor Gerardo Sanchez says they’ve been in talks for a couple of years now. At first he was not sure what to think, but as time has passed and questions have been answered, he’s open-minded and optimistic. So far, a deal for 650 acres of land is done and a development agreement with San Luis and the company has been reached.
“As we get closer, it looks good for the city,” says Sanchez.
An adequate water supply was initially a top concern, but Sanchez says although further studies are underway, his engineers have reassured him that will not be an issue. The site of the structure sits on a former citrus grove, which used twice as much water as the new project calls for.
Another top concern for the city of San Luis was money.
“My biggest concern was, was it going to be subsidized,” said Sanchez. “Was it tax money?”
Pickett says no. He said the company is not counting on any government money for the estimated $1.55 billion project.
“Right now we have a commitment, a conditional commitment, for 100 percent of all that capital. It’s from an international firm based here in San Francisco, National Standard Finance,” said Pickett.
With one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at more than 65 percent, the San Luis city council approved the project, swayed by the promise of hundreds of new jobs.
It’s estimated the tower will bring 2,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs to the area – a shot in the arm to the city’s sluggish economy.
“These people are going to need a place to sleep, a place to eat, a place to socialize. We’re talking about economic development,” said Sanchez.
The “cooling tower on steroids” as Pickett calls it, works like this: First, treated water is misted over the top of the cylindrical concrete structure. The water evaporates into the hot, dry air and falls quickly, creating downdraft winds up to 50 miles an hour that turn giant turbines and generate power around the clock.
The output predictions are based on years of weather data collected from Yuma’s marine base and airport.
“There’s nothing in this tower that is new, magic wizardry, unproven science or unproven devices right now – right down to the pumps, the turbines, the generators,” said Pickett.
The taller tower means more power to sell and more money.
Pickett tells CBS 5 Investigates he’s meeting now with possible buyers in California and Arizona.
He is also planning to talk with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency about the appropriate permits.
Steve Brittle from Don’t Waste Arizona, a group that works on state environmental issues, says there are a lot of unanswered questions about the project.
“I’m very skeptical. I’m just very skeptical,” said Brittle.
He says the company has yet to file an application with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, and although Pickett tells CBS 5 there will be no environmental concerns, Brittle believes pollution will be an issue.
“I look at the design. There’s air coming out of every direction, 360 degrees on this thing, and it’s got to go somewhere,” said Brittle.
Pickett explained, “All of the cold, wet air comes out the tunnels. Most of it settles right back into the ground, just like you’re farming or irrigating your crops.”
“I really don’t see it happening,” said Brittle. “We’ve seen Arizona kind of be hoodwinked a few times before.”
Pickett says naysayers need to do their homework. Sanchez says whether the project is built or not, he loses nothing.
“If private industry is willing to bet or risk their money, it’s good news for me,” said Sanchez.
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