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Cedar City • The sunshine in Iron County will become electric when a Norwegian company fires up a solar project expected to be the largest in Utah, if not the country.
The North America division of Oslo-based Scatec Solar plans to invest up to $500 million in the project, which would place photovoltaic panels on 650 acres of private land northwest of Parowan. Such panels convert direct sunlight into electricity, needing just enough water to keep the panels clean.
Planners say the project will be built in two phases over a couple of years and eventually produce 100 megawatts of electricity that could supply power to up to 80,000 homes.
Luigi Resta, Scatec sales and business development officer in charge of the solar farm, said Iron County is a prime spot for the project because it offers abundant sunshine, affordable land and is near a Rocky Mountain Power substation that can distribute the electricity.
The company has been planning the project for the past four years and will start construction when sale agreements are in place and building permits issued, hopefully by spring, he said.
The company needs to start construction by the end of the year to take advantage of federal tax credits and state incentives.
"The state has been very helpful," Resta said.
Security fences are already going up around the property, including a special barrier to keep out Utah prairie dogs, a threatened species that lives on a special preserve on adjoining land.
Kevin Robinson, whose Cedar City company is erecting the seven-foot fence, said Friday that he just received his first shipment of 6,500 feet of fencing.
Resta said the company is finalizing contracts for the power, but would not specify with whom the company is negotiating.
He did say there's a good chance some customers could be in Utah. The power is especially attractive to governments or companies that have a mandate to reduce their carbon footprint, he added.
"The future of the country depends on generating energy domestically," said Resta. "Utah could become an exporter of [renewable energy]. … Solar does provide a hedge against the volatility and cost of carbon. The sun is free and [solar] maintenance low."
Southwestern Utah is prime territory for renewable energy. A large wind farm is already producing power in Beaver County, as is a geothermal plant.
Eric Perreca, president and chief financial officer of Scatec North America, said the company plans to use local resources for construction and operation.
"This is a community builder and the state has been great to work with," he said. "This will be a massive win for Utah. They have been the most supportive of any state I've dealt with. It will offer permanent, well-paid electrical engineering jobs and be a tremendous source of revenue for the county."
Perreca points to Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and Starbucks as examples of progressive companies that think green and says they will set a precedent for using renewable energy in the future.
Tim Tennis, a Cedar City developer who helped shepherd Scatec through the approval process with the county, is excited about the clean resource. "This will be phenomenal for the county and the state of Utah," he said.
Todd Stowell, community planner for Iron County, is also enthusiastic.
He said all applications are in place and he expects the company to apply soon for a building permit.
Stowell said other companies have inquired about possible solar projects in the county, which simplified the permitting process for renewable energy projects.
Among the reasons that make the Iron County attractive for solar are plenty of sunshine at high altitude, affordable real estate, transmission infrastructure, low pollution and a moderate climate.
"Another benefit is that we have a green business partnering locally for contractors and workers," Stowell said.
Scatec Solar North America, Inc., a division of Oslo Norway-based Scatec Solar is building a solar facility northwest of Parowan in Iron County. Some facts about the project, scheduled to go online in 2013:
Size • Planned for 625 acres of private land next to a Rocky Mountain Power substation. Construction on the first of two phases is planned for later this year.
Capacity • Plans call for eventual generation of 100 megawatts, enough to power 80,000 homes.
Local benefits • The project will employ 60 to 85 construction workers for each phase of the project. Scatec hopes to eventually partner with Southern Utah University and Southwest Applied Technology Center for a permanent work force of about a dozen.
Cost • Up to $500 million.