When Diego Leal learned he was coming to Arizona to work on a solar project near Willcox, he couldn’t have been happier.

“I was born and raised here, my mom and my dad are here, so it’s great being able to work on this project and be home for a little while,” Leal said.

Leal, 21, has been installing solar panels on utility-scale projects for more than a year, traveling around the country with a subsidiary for Swinerton Renewable Energy (www.swinertonrenewable.com), the vendor that’s building the Apache Solar Project adjacent to the Apache Generating Station.

Workers install solar panels at a rate around 4,000 per day.

Leal is one of hundreds of workers Swinerton hires in the communities where it has projects.  But in his case, it turned out to be more than a temporary job.

“I started at a job site here a year ago, then went to Minnesota where we did a 100 MW project, then traveled to Boise, Idaho where we did two 20 MW projects, then most recently to Pensacola, Florida, where we had a 50 MW project, and now I’m back home, at least for now,” Leal said.

Sean Begay, project engineer, said Leal is an example of the kind of worker Swinerton looks for when it hires from a local workforce.

“We try, on pretty much every project, to find those who meet our standards and are willing to be at work every day and who want to better themselves within the project itself – and bring them along with us,” Begay said.

“We have a core group of about 30 to 40 people, from superintendents to a couple of foremen and lead men who are here to train the people we bring on site.

A welder fabricates a pad for one of the nine inverters on site.

“We’re teaching the local guys as we go. Our process, as we install, is to make sure they get a basic understanding of each step and achieve increased efficiency, and they move along. Then, depending on where we are, we might pull them back to perform another task, such as module plug-ins,” Begay said.

“At peak, we’ll have about 150 people here, so we’re bringing on more than 100 local workers during this project,” Begay said.

At the time of this article in mid-June, Begay said they were close to achieving their goal of installing 4,000 panels a day and may exceed that before the job is completed.

“This one’s actually going along really smoothly; all the guys on site have an idea of what we’re doing and what’s needed, and it’s been moving along super easy.

“We’re already installing about 3,500 panels a day,” Begay said. “My main foreman is used to doing between 5,000 and 6,000 panels a day, so he’ll probably be bouncing around between that 4,000 and 6,000 panels a day.”

“By now, it’s mainly installing panels and the racking system, then plugging in the modules, then dressing up the modules to have the cable run back to the combiner boxes, which then brings the power back to the inverters. The inverters switch the power from the panels from DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current), which then runs back to the power plant,” Begay said.

One of nine inverters sit in place on the Apache Solar site.

He added that the site is perfect for solar.

“This site is very smooth and the ground is really easy to work, it was easy to pound the piers. The only challenge we really have is the dust. As long as we don’t have the wind, we can control the dust,” Begay said.

Apache Solar Project

Construction of the Apache Solar project is well underway; almost 4,000 solar panels are being installed each day.

Planning for the solar field began in 2015 and the construction permit was granted on April 13, 2016. The initial concepts varied between a 2 MW, 6 MW, and 14 MW projects, but interest among the Class A member cooperatives for portions of the power grew to the point that a 17 MW project was planned and finalized with the members in November.

The AEPCO board decided to offer the project to other organizations, and in February of this year, the project increased to a total of 20 MW after Electrical District 2 (www.ED2.com) subscribed to 3 MW.


Apache Solar Project Fast Facts:


  • 20 MW AC to the grid.
  • Total acres: 134 (all existing AEPCO property)
  • Total number of panels: 77,053
  • Each panel produces 320 watts
  • Nine 2.5 MW inverters, which convert the DC power generated by the panels to AC power
  • Construction and commercial operation date (COD), the date the array goes live and begins producing power to the grid, Sept. 7, 2017 (projected)
  • AEPCO is designing and will install a 15/20/25 MVA 69/34.5 kVA step up transformer in the Apache 69 kV yard for interconnection.