Friday, August 8, 2008

First Solar Goes Big

Recall how we previously discussed that utilities are the stakeholders that should be driving the solar revolution in order to get the U.S. to the dream of “10% solar by 2025.” But First Solar, the Google of solar and the world’s leading thin-film manufacturer is beating the utilities at their own game by going into the utilities business as well. Last month, it announced that it had inked a twenty year purchase power agreement with Southern California Edison to build and maintain a 7.5 MW (expandable to 21 MW) thin-film power plant in Blythe, California. When completed, it would be the largest PV power plant in the Golden State. According to some sleuthing by the Green Wombat, the plant site spans some 120 acres.

Very shortly after, First Solar announced another 10 MW PV power plant project in Boulder City, Nevada for Sempra Generation, the San Diego-based natural gas production company. The PV plant will be built across 80 acres of land adjacent to an existing Sempra natural gas power plant, presenting a unique energy supply proposition in a solar-natural gas hybrid system whereby the natural gas plant supplies the base-load and the thin-film PV system provides the peak load. Such hybrid systems may be the way of the future as they reflect the understanding of the true value proposition of solar today—i.e, solar has already achieved grid parity in many geographic areas during peak demand periods and serve as an effective complement to base-load power supply.

Unlike the case with Southern California Edison, Sempra will actually take over ownership and maintenance of the power plant once construction is completed. However, these two deals are indication of First Solar’s ambitions to vertically integrate its operations, moving from PV module manufacturing to the actual delivery of solar generated power.

As far as utility-scale solar power plants are concerned, thin-film PV, because of their relative conversion inefficiencies, require far more land area than solar thermal systems or non-thin-film PV, and lack the molten-salt storage technologies that some solar thermal systems have. On the other hand, there are no moving parts in a thin-film solar power plant so maintenance demands are reduced and much less water is consumed compared to solar thermal systems that rely on conventional steam turbines to generate electricity (a key consideration in water-scarce desert areas where solar power plants are typically located). And of course, as long as polysilicon supply remains constrained and thin-film conversion efficiencies continue to improve, thin-film PV will continue to gain market share against crystalline-based PV. First Solar is not the first thin-film company to announce plans to build PV power plants; OptiSolar previously announced plans to build a massive 550 MW plant.

One utility that is heeding the call to go solar is Florida Power & Light, which has engaged SunPower to build two PV power plants totaling 35 MW in Florida.


- First Solar announces blow out Q2 financial results.
- Thin-film to grab 28% solar market share by 2012, projects Lux Research.

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