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Albert Laird, SolarCity's regional vice president, stands in front of 1 million square feet of solar panels his company installed atop a Walmart distribution center in Buckeye. He says solar has become a major industry in Arizona. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Corbin Carson)

BUCKEYE, Ariz. -- Covering the 1 million-square-foot roof of a Walmart distribution center, these 14,000 solar panels will produce 30 percent of the building's energy needs.

To Gary Pierce, a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission who attended a dedication here recently, it's a sign that renewable energy is on a roll.

"I clearly see it growing into the future as we do more and more solar and other projects to bring green energy to Arizona," he said.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a national trade association, reported earlier this month that Arizona ranked second in the nation in installation of photovoltaic solar panels in the quarter that ended in March.

Arizona now has over 620 megawatts of photovoltaic solar energy capacity, enough to power about 80,000 homes, and the group expects that number to double by the end of next year.

"This report shows the trajectory of Arizona in comparison to other states and is a great indicator," said Lon Huber, Arizona lead for the SEIA. "We've had some hugely innovative projects that have come online recently that have propelled us to second place."

The growth includes residential and commercial installations as well as much larger power plants like Agua Caliente and Solana, which are due online in 2013, the group noted.

Gov. Jan Brewer seized on the report, issuing a news release praising Arizona's standing in photovoltaic installations and adding incorrectly that SEIA ranked Arizona second in the nation in renewable energy production.

But by any measure, advocates and political leaders say, solar power is creating a major industry in a state rich in sunshine.

"Solar energy means not only clean and renewable energy but also quality jobs for Arizona," said Kevin Kinsall, Brewer's natural resources policy adviser.

Rioglass Solar, a company that recently opened a $50 million facility in Surprise, has 81 employees splitting three shifts, 24 hours a day, five days a week. The firm is supplying nearly 1 million mirrors to Solana, which is under construction in Gila Bend.

"The solar industry sooner or later is going to take over as the main clean energy in Arizona," said Jordi Villanueva, the company's business development manager.

According to the National Solar Jobs Census 2011, over the past year, U.S. solar jobs increased at nearly 10 times the rate of the rest of the economy.

SEIA's Lon Huber noted that Arizona's solar industry already employs 5,000 people.

"You can see how we're growing, and we can become a major part of the Arizona economy," Huber said.

The company that installed the solar panels on the Walmart project, SolarCity, has expanded to five operations centers in the state with a workforce of more than 180.

"Solar is already a major industry in Arizona," said Albert Laird, SolarCity's regional vice president. "Arizona's solar energy production increased 333 percent from 2010 to 2011."

Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, a member of the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said Arizona's solar industry is providing jobs and innovation, though there is always room for improvement.

"We are pushing towards No. 1," she said. "Arizona ‘the solar capital' would be fabulous."

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