When it comes to solar companies, First Solar is the Google of renewable energy. The Tempe, Ariz.-based solar cell maker backed by the Wal-Mart (WMT)’s Walton family has seen its stock skyrocket over the past year, hitting a high of $317 on May 14. (It was trading at $275 Friday.) Now First Solar, which makes “thin film” solar modules, is getting into the utility business, winning approval Thursday from California regulators to build the state’s first thin-film photovoltaic solar power plant. The 7.5 megawatt project – expandable to 21 megawatts – will sell electricity to Southern California Edison (EIX) under a 20-year contract.
While First Solar (FSLR) supplies solar modules to power plant builders in Europe, this is apparently the first time it has acted as a utility-scale solar developer itself. First Solar tends to keep quiet about its projects and did not return a request for comment. But a troll through the public records reveals some details of what is called the FSE Blythe project. The solar farm will be built in the Mojave Desert town of Blythe by a First Solar subsidiary, First Solar Electric. The company paid $350,000 in January for 120 acres of agricultural land in Blythe, providing a tidy profit for the seller, which had purchased the property for $60,000 in June 1999.
Approval of the contract by the California Public Utilities Commission Thursday came on the same day that SunPower (SPWR) announced a deal to build two photovoltaic power plants – a 25-megawatt one and a 10-megawatt version – in Florida for utility Florida Power & Light (FPL). PV plants are essentially supersized versions of rooftop solar panel systems found on homes and businesses. Thin-film solar prints solar cells on flexible material or glass and typically uses little or no expensive (and in short supply) polysilicon, the key material of conventional solar cells.
Most large-scale solar power plants being developed in the United States use solar thermal technology that relies on huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. In fact, there is a solar land rush underway in the desert Southwest as solar developers, investment banks like Goldman Sachs (GS), utilities and speculators of every stripe scramble to lock up hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land for solar power plants. (See Green Wombat’s feature story on the solar land rush in the July 21 issue of Fortune.)
PV power plants, on the other hand, have not been cost-competitive with solar thermal and have been most popular in countries like Germany, Spain and Portugal, where generous subsidies guarantee solar developers a high rate for the electricity they produce. The situation in the U.S. seems to be changing, though, judging by the deals utilties are striking with companies like First Solar and SunPower. Meanwhile, thin-film startup OptiSolar is moving to build a gigantic 550-megawatt thin-film solar power plant on California’s central coast but has yet to sign a power purchase agreement with a utility.