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Proposed massive solar wind tower generates questions

San Luis, AZ, is dependent on agriculture, though nearly two of every three adults are unemployed. (Source: CBS 5 News) San Luis, AZ, is dependent on agriculture, though nearly two of every three adults are unemployed. (Source: CBS 5 News)
San Luis Mayor Gerardo Sanchez  says he's open-minded and optimistic about the project. (Source: CBS 5 News) San Luis Mayor Gerardo Sanchez says he's open-minded and optimistic about the project. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Steve Brittle of Don't Waste Arizona says he is very skeptical of the project. (Source: CBS 5 News) Steve Brittle of Don't Waste Arizona says he is very skeptical of the project. (Source: CBS 5 News)
The tower will be as wide as four football fields at its base and would be the second-tallest structure in the world. (Source: Solar Wind Energy Tower, Inc.) The tower will be as wide as four football fields at its base and would be the second-tallest structure in the world. (Source: Solar Wind Energy Tower, Inc.)
SAN LUIS, AZ (CBS5) -

Change is in the wind for the quiet border town of San Luis.

The farming community might 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 said.  

At 2,235 feet tall and 1,200 feet at its base, the tower would be the second-tallest structure in the world, behind 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 said by telephone.

Sanchez said the city and company have been in talks for a couple of years. At first he was not sure what to think, but as time passed and questions were 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," Sanchez said.

An adequate water supply was initially a top concern, but Sanchez said that 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," Sanchez said. "Was it tax money?"

Pickett 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," Pickett said.

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," Sanchez said.  

The "cooling tower on steroids," as Pickett called 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," Pickett said.

The taller tower means more power to sell and more money.

Pickett said he's meeting with possible buyers in California and Arizona.

He said he is also planning to talk with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency about the appropriate permits.

Steve Brittle of Don't Waste Arizona, a group that works on state environmental issues, said there are a lot of unanswered questions about the project.

"I'm very skeptical. I'm just very skeptical," Brittle said.

He said the company has yet to file an application with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, and although Pickett said 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," Brittle said.

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," Brittle said. "We've seen Arizona kind of be hoodwinked a few times before."

Pickett said naysayers need to do their homework. Sanchez said 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," Sanchez said.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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