Leaving a mark: First Solar makes impact in Yuma County

Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2016 12:45 am | Updated: 8:04 am, Mon Apr 18, 2016.

By Matt Harding, Yuma Sun staff writer

The White Wing Solar Project, a planned 210-megawatt solar facility in eastern Yuma County, is still in the permitting process, but its owner, First Solar, has already made a huge impact on the area.

The White Wing Project is the second phase of a two-part project that started with the Agua Caliente Project, a 290-megawatt facility that powers homes in California through Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

First Solar got a special use permit at the March 7 County Board of Supervisors meeting to begin work on the White Wing Project, which is located on the old White Wing Ranch, about 12 miles north of Dateland.

Mainly, First Solar needs a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility from the Arizona Corporation Commission, and a right-of-way from the Bureau of Land Management. A timetable for those have not been set, but the process is underway.

First Solar project developer Max Bakker previously told the Yuma Sun that Phase II should be online by 2019 or 2020.

The expansion will include a $400 million capital investment. First Solar already invested $1.8 billion on the Agua Caliente Project, according to Greg LaVann, senior vice president of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation.

It also creates some permanent and temporary jobs. There will be an estimated six full-time employees paid about $90,000 annually at the White Wing site.

The Agua Caliente project created about 400 contracted construction jobs, and the slightly smaller White Wing Project could possibly create close to that many jobs.

Alex Martin, First Solar’s public affairs manager, said that the company tries to hire locally.

“First Solar typically gives priority to qualified local labor whenever possible and will work directly with local entities, such as the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation, to inform Yuma County residents of job opportunities when the project nears the construction phase,” wrote Martin via email.

But more than that, First Solar is the county’s second largest taxpayer, which LaVann says is the economic driver, injecting millions of dollars into the county.

First Solar paid $56,371,535 in primary assessed property taxes in 2015, and the same in secondary assessed taxes. Primary taxes help pay for basic governmental services such as police and the court system, while secondary taxes are used for voter-approved items, typically construction bonds or improvement districts.

With the construction of the White Wing Project, First Solar will likely surpass Arizona Public Service to become the county’s largest taxpayer.

First Solar hasn’t only helped the county economy, but also the Hyder School District, which includes the grades K-8 Dateland Elementary School in the community nearest to the White Wing Ranch.

The company, which earned $3.6 billion in annual sales in 2015, has given around $150,000 to the Dateland school, according to Bob Sloncen, who has spent 47 years with the district as a coach, teacher, principal and now as a consultant.

The donations started with NextLight, the company acquired by First Solar in 2010. They had occupied space in the school for about six months until they moved into space on the solar project’s land.

NextLight also gave the district $10,000 that first year.

“We were very impressed with that,” said Sloncen, who added that First Solar continued giving during its time in Yuma County, and has plans to continue into the future.

“First Solar is committed to engaging with local communities near all of its projects,” Martin said. “The Hyder School District has been a great partner over the years and we look forward to working with them in the future.”

Around the time it acquired NextLight, First Solar presented the district with a $100,000 donation.

The majority owner on the Agua Caliente Project, NRG Energy, also gave Hyder School District $50,000 over the past three years, Sloncen said, along with former minority owner MidAmerican Energy.

The impact on the district is unmistakable.

Sloncen said that the primary — and most important — use of the money has been to extend the school day from 3 to 4 p.m. three days a week in the district, which has just under 100 students.

Since adding the extra hour of schooling, scores on the AIMS test (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) have dramatically improved. Grades four and eight take the AIMS test in the district.

From 2012-2014, the school tested with an A average.

Sloncen said that about 40 percent of students in the district don’t speak English when they begin kindergarten.

In 2015, on the AzMERIT test, which is the statewide assessment for English language arts and math in grades three through eight (and at high schools), the Hyder District had the highest score in Yuma County on the math portion and the second highest score in the county on the English portion.

“It was the money we got from First Solar to be able to do that,” Sloncen said.

In the last three years, Sloncen said, the district has also had the opportunity to take some educational field trips.

The eighth grade class has been able to spend a school week at the Phoenix Zoo, going on “behind the scenes” tours, feeding animals and working with the zoo’s employees, Sloncen said.

The seventh grade students have spent a school week at SeaWorld in San Diego to participate in a program where the children learn more about the animals and get to sleep next to sharks.

The trip also takes the seventh-graders to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, just north of SeaWorld.

In a state that receives little public education funding from the government, Sloncen says he credits First Solar with being able to do those types of things.

“They have been an absolute godsend to our school district,” he said. “We’ve been able to do some things we wouldn’t normally be able to do.”

The school, Sloncen said, is the heart of the community. It holds church activities, summer baseball and a slew of other local events.

So when the district saw a large drop in attendance, primarily due to a struggling agriculture industry, it financially hurt the school, Sloncen said.

The White Wing Ranch was a big indicator of how the school would fare financially.

Sloncen said the district used to send a bus in the morning to the area, picking up 55 or so kids. White Wing had around 600 acres of grapes, and 1,700 acres of citrus, Sloncen said. It was at its peak in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.

After that, the grapes were torn out and the citrus trees began to age, Sloncen said.

When the fruit dried up, so did the school — losing a quarter of their students and funding.

“Nobody was going to go back in there to plant grapes,” Sloncen said.

But then First Solar came in, and started supporting the school. And while student enrollment doesn’t compare to the size of past classes due to the economy, the students who are there are able to get an education that wouldn’t be possible without such funding.

Sloncen recognized that First Solar’s community involvement isn’t a long-term economic solution for Dateland.

But in the meantime, their money has helped students from a small-town community dream big by giving them experiences they wouldn’t have had otherwise.