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Archive for the ‘First Solar’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The Obama administration’s solar building boom continues. On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the first lease to build a large-scale photovoltaic project on federal land in Nevada.

“Yes, it’s about jobs and finding a new way forward but it’s also about dealing with the crises of our time facing America,” said Salazar during a speech in Los Angeles at the Solar Power International conference, the industry’s big annual get-together. “America’s foreign policy is held hostage by the politics of oil. It is imperative that we grab this new energy future.”

It’s a significant move. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management controls a huge chunk of Nevada, prime territory for big solar power projects due to the state’s intense sunshine and a licensing process that is far less arduous than the one in neighboring California.

On stage at the conference, Salazar signed a lease for the 60-megawatt Silver State photovoltaic farm to be built by First Solar outside of Las Vegas. The secretary said it will supply enough electricity to power more than 15,000 homes.

In recent weeks, Salazar has signed off on leases for three other solar projects in Southern California that would generate 1,124 megawatts of electricity.

“We’re not done yet, we’re not done yet. Our work is just beginning,” said Salazar, who left his trademark 10-gallon hat back in Washington.

A report released Wednesday by the Solar Foundation, a non-profit research group, said that there are 93,000 people employed in the solar business in the U.S. and that a survey of employers found that they plan to add 24,000 more jobs by August 2011.

Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, noted that a decade ago U.S. companies supplied 40 percent of the world’s photovoltaic products while today it’s just 10 percent.

“We hope this is a sign of a turnaround and that policymakers take note,” he said Wednesday, referring to the solar employment study.

While solar jobs exist in all 50 states, the study found that nearly 40 percent of them were created in California, the state with the most aggressive renewable energy targets.

But expect the federal government to be driving demand for solar power — for its own use.

“It’s important we all walk the talk,” Salazar said, noting that the Interior Department alone has installed more than 2,000 renewable energy projects.

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photo: Walmart

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

When Walmart announced on Monday that it would install 15 megawatts’ worth of solar arrays on as many as 30 of its stores in California and Arizona, it set out to shape the solar market in more ways than one.

The reason? The world’s biggest retailer specified that many of the new solar installations should use thin-film photovoltaic panels. Thin-film solar cells are printed or deposited on glass or flexible materials. And although they are less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, they can be produced at a lower cost than traditional crystalline silicon solar cells.

Thin-film solar currently accounts for just about 20 percent of the solar market. The most technologically advanced versions have had a difficult time grabbing market share due to competition with low-cost Chinese crystalline silicon manufacturers and a recession that has dried up investor funding.

Enter Walmart.

“By leveraging our global scale to become a more efficient company, we are able to lower our expenses and help develop markets for new technologies,” Kim Saylors Laster, Walmart’s vice president of energy, said in a statement. “Developing and incorporating new renewable energy sources, like thin film, reduces energy price risk and aligns very well with our commitment to solving business challenges through technology.”

Walmart signed a deal with SolarCity, a leading Silicon Valley solar installer, to manage the project. SolarCity will install and own the photovoltaic arrays on Walmart stores and sell the electricity to the retailer.

SolarCity’s chief executive, Lyndon Rive, told me Monday that the company will install thin-film solar arrays made by First Solar and Miasolé.

First Solar, which makes an older variant of the technology called cadmium telluride, is the world’s biggest thin-film manufacturer and Walton family members were early investors in the Tempe, Ariz., company. First Solar is also an investor in SolarCity, which already uses its photovoltaic panels.

Miasolé, a Silicon Valley startup, is one of a number of companies that has developed a type of thin-film solar cell called copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS, that offers the promise of higher efficiencies and lower costs.

“Walmart wanted to see thin-film be adopted and made that a requirement in the bidding process,” says Rive.

He noted that the retailer did not dictate the percentage of stores that should receive thin-film solar arrays but expects the technology will account for the majority of installations over the next year.

“There’s no hard and fast number but they’d like us to do as much as possible,” said Rive.

Another twist in the Walmart deal is that the company collaborated with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to develop the criteria used to select SolarCity. (EDF, which maintains an office near Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., has long worked with the retailer on sustainability initiatives.)

The goal, Walmart said in a statement, “was to identify the most innovative solar technologies that would create benefits on three fronts — to the environment, technology, and financial viability.”

The bigger ambition, though, is to shape the solar market, as Walmart acknowledged.

“The company’s large scale on-site installation of CIGS could help further the development of this technology and bring it to market quicker, while use of cadmium telluride thin film could help make the case for other businesses to adopt the technology for on-site commercial use.”

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photo: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about a growing movement to repurpose farmland and toxic waste sites for big renewable energy projects:

LEMOORE, Calif. — Thousands of acres of farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley have been removed from agricultural production, largely because the once fertile land is contaminated by salt buildup from years of irrigation.

But large swaths of those dry fields could have a valuable new use in their future — making electricity.

Farmers and officials at Westlands Water District, a public agency that supplies water to farms in the valley, have agreed to provide land for what would be one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes, to be built on 30,000 acres.

At peak output, the proposed Westlands Solar Park would generate as much electricity as several big nuclear power plants.

Unlike some renewable energy projects blocked by objections that they would despoil the landscape, this one has the support of environmentalists.

The San Joaquin initiative is in the vanguard of a new approach to locating renewable energy projects: putting them on polluted or previously used land. The Westlands project has won the backing of groups that have opposed building big solar projects in the Mojave Desert and have fought Westlands for decades over the district’s water use. Landowners and regulators are on board, too.

“It’s about as perfect a place as you’re going to find in the state of California for a solar project like this,” said Carl Zichella, who until late July was the Sierra Club’s Western renewable programs director. “There’s virtually zero wildlife impact here because the land has been farmed continuously for such a long time and you have proximity to transmission, infrastructure and markets.”

Recycling contaminated or otherwise disturbed land into green energy projects could help avoid disputes when developers seek to build sprawling arrays of solar collectors and wind turbines in pristine areas, where they can affect wildlife and water supplies.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for instance, are evaluating a dozen landfills and toxic waste sites for wind farms or solar power plants. In Arizona, the Bureau of Land Management has begun a program to repurpose landfills and abandoned mines for renewable energy.

In Southern California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt solar array complex, part of which would cover portions of the dry bed of Owens Lake, which was drained when the city began diverting water from the Owens Valley in 1913. Having already spent more than $500 million to control the intense dust storms that sweep off the lake, the agency hopes solar panels can hold down the dust while generating clean electricity for the utility. A small pilot project will help determine if solar panels can withstand high winds and dust.

“Nothing about this is simple, but it’s worth doing,” Austin Beutner, the department’s interim general manager, said of the pilot program.

All of the projects are in early stages of development, and many obstacles remain. But the support they’ve garnered from landowners, regulators and environmentalists has attracted the interest of big solar developers such as SunPower and First Solar as well as utilities under pressure to meet aggressive renewable energy mandates.

Those targets have become harder to reach as the sunniest undeveloped land is put off limits.

Last December, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced legislation to protect nearly a million acres of the Mojave Desert from renewable energy development.

But the senator’s bill also includes tax incentives for developers who build renewable energy projects on disturbed lands.

For Westlands farmers, the promise of the solar project is not clean electricity, but the additional water allocations they will get if some land is no longer used for farming.

“Westlands’ water supply has been chronically short over the past 18 years, so one of the things we’ve tried to do to balance supply and demand is to take land out of production,” said Thomas W. Birmingham, general manager of the water district, which acquired 100,000 acres and removed the land from most agricultural production. “The conversion of district-owned lands into areas that can generate electricity will help to reduce the cost of providing water to our farmers.”

You can read the rest of the story here:

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I write about the solar industry’s dismay over the rent and other fees the United States government will charge developers to build big solar power plants on federal land in the desert Southwest:

The nation’s biggest landlord, the United States government, has set the rent it will charge developers who build solar power plants on federal land, and some prospective tenants are not happy.

Solar developers will actually pay two fees – the lease for the land along with what the Bureau of Land Management calls a “megawatt capacity fee” based on how much electricity a project generates.

“Since we don’t have authority to collect royalties for wind and solar projects, we had to come up with a methodology to convert that electrical generation into an upfront rent payment,” Ray Brady, manager of the bureau’s renewable energy team, said in an interview.

But potential developers see a disparity. “The proposed B.L.M. rental fees are in many cases two times higher than market rates for private land,” Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in an e-mail message. “The B.L.M. must collect ‘fair market value’ from developers, but this seems to go beyond that threshold.”

That methodology is a work in progress as the agency tries to adapt decades-old formulas designed for oil and gas leasing and mineral extraction to renewable energy production.

Some 23 million acres of federal property are suitable for large-scale solar development, according to the bureau, and the agency has received more than 200 lease applications from developers who covet hot and sunny desert real estate in the Southwest.

Solar farms typically require vast swaths of land, meaning the lease fees can be considerable depending on a project’s location and local property values. The Bureau of Land Management’s solar rents range from $15.70 an acre in Hidalgo County, N.M., to $313.88 an acre in Riverside County, Calif.

For instance, BrightSource Energy will pay the government about $427,000 a year in rent for its 3,400-acre Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino, Calif., now undergoing licensing. The company, based in Oakland, Calif., will also pay an annual megawatt capacity fee of $2.6 million for the 392-megawatt solar thermal power plant. Fees over the 25-year life of the contracts that BrightSource has signed with California utilities would total about $76 million.

In neighboring Riverside County, First Solar, a solar module maker and developer based in Tempe, Ariz., plans to build a 550-megawatt photovoltaic farm on 4,410 acres of federal land. Lease and capacity fees for the Desert Sunlight project will total about $4.3 million a year.

The agency is charging different capacity fees for different solar technologies. Photovoltaic power plants, which deploy solar panels like those found on residential rooftops, are assessed $5,256 a megawatt.

Developers of more efficient solar thermal power plant, which uses mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam that drives a turbine, pay $6,570 a megawatt. The same rate is charged for concentrating photovoltaic farms that use mirrors to focus the sun on a highly efficient solar cell.

If either technology uses energy storage systems to produce electricity when the sun doesn’t shine, the fee jumps to $7,884 a megawatt. The fees will be phased in over the first five years of a power plant’s operation.

Some developers and environmentalists argue that such a fee structure penalizes technologies that are more efficient and thus use less land.

“This is an unfortunate way of emphasizing one technology over another,” said Bobby McEnaney, a land program expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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ausra-16

photo: Ausra

Silicon Valley solar company Ausra has sold its sole remaining solar power plant project in the United States, all but completing its exit from solar farming. As I write Thursday in The New York Times:

Ausra is continuing its exit from the business of building solar power plants, announcing on Wednesday that it has sold a planned California solar farm to First Solar.

The Carrizo Energy Solar Farm was one of the three large solar power plants planned within a few miles of each other in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast.

Together they would supply nearly 1,000 megawatts of electricity to the utility Pacific Gas and Electric.

First Solar will not build the Carrizo project, and the deal has resulted in the cancellation of Ausra’s contract to provide 177 megawatts to P.G.&E. — a setback in the utility’s efforts to meet state-mandated renewable energy targets.

But it could speed up approval of the two other solar projects, which have been bogged down in disputes over their impact on wildlife, and face resistance from residents concerned about the concentration of so many big solar farms in a rural region.

First Solar is only buying an option on the farmland where the Ausra project was to be built, according to Alan Bernheimer, a First Solar spokesman. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

The deal will let First Solar revamp its own solar farm, a nearby 550-megawatt project called Topaz that will feature thousands of photovoltaic panels arrayed on miles of ranchland.

“This will allow us to reconfigure Topaz in a way that lessens its impact and creates wildlife corridors,” said Mr. Bernheimer.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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_MG_7360-01

photo: Nanosolar

A day after First Solar made waves with its agreement with the Chinese government to build a 2,000-megawatt solar farm in Mongolia, Silicon Valley startup Nanosolar took the wraps off its much-hyped thin-film photovoltaic technology and announced it has booked $4.1 billion in orders from solar developers. As I write in today’s New York Times:

Since its founding in 2002, Nanosolar has raised a lot of money – half a billion dollars to date – and made a lot of noise about upending the solar industry, but the Silicon Valley start-up has been a bit vague on specifics about why it’s the next big green thing.

On Wednesday, Nanosolar pulled back the curtain on its thin-film photovoltaic cell technology — which it claims is more efficient and less expensive than that of industry leader First Solar — and announced that it has secured $4.1 billion in orders for its solar panels.

Martin Roscheisen, Nanosolar’s chief executive, said customers include solar power plant developers like NextLight, AES Solar and Beck Energy of Germany.

The typical Nanosolar farm will be between 2 and 20 megawatts in size, Mr. Roscheisen said in an e-mail message from Germany, where he was attending the opening of Nanosolar’s new factory near Berlin. “This is a sweet spot in terms of ease of permitting and distributed deployment without having to tax the transmission infrastructure.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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first solar

Photo: First Solar

First Solar became the first U.S. solar company to break into the Chinese market on Tuesday and it did do in a big way when it signed an agreement to build a two-gigawatt thin-film solar power plant in Inner Mongolia. As I write in The New York Times:

Chinese government officials signed an agreement on Tuesday with First Solar, an American solar developer, for a 2,000-megawatt photovoltaic farm to be built in the Mongolian desert.

Set for completion in 2019, the First Solar project represents the world’s biggest photovoltaic power plant project to date, and is part of an 11,950-megawatt renewable-energy park planned for Ordos City in Inner Mongolia.

The memorandum of understanding between Chinese officials and First Solar, the world’s largest photovoltaic cell manufacturer, would open a potentially vast solar market in China and follows the Chinese government’s recent moves to accelerate development of renewable energy.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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eSolar Sierra
photo: eSolar

California may be in the midst of licensing dozens of massive megawatt solar power plants but New Mexico may be first state out of the gate with a big project using next-generation solar thermal technology. On Thursday, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar and utility giant NRG Energy will build a 92-megawatt solar thermal power plant — the state’s first — near the Texas border that will go online in 2011.

“The New Mexico Public Utilities Commission has approved the project, we have the permits and  we already have the land so we’ll be breaking ground in 2010,” eSolar CEO Bill Gross told Green Wombat. “We already have the equipment and the financing partner, NRG. We’re ready to go.”

In February, Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar agreed to supply its technology to NRG (NRG) to develop solar farms generating 500 megawatts.

eSolar will use fields of mirrors to focus the sun on water-filled boilers that sit atop towers. The heat vaporizes the water and the resulting steam drives electricity-generating turbines. Competitors use large, slightly curved — parabolic — mirrors to focus sunlight. That requires big and expensive steel frames to hold the glass in place.  eSolar’s solution: make small flat mirrors the size of an LCD television screen that clamp on to a  5 x 12-inch frame and then use software and Big Iron computing to position the mirrors to create a “dynamic parabola” out of the entire heliostat field.  Gross says eSolar’s small heliostats can be cheaply manufactured take up less land than conventional mirrors.

That means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines, lowering costs and avoiding some of the endangered species fights that have slowed Big Solar projects in California. (See Green Wombat’s column on Grist for a first-hand look at eSolar’s Sierra demonstration plant in Southern California.)

The New Mexico solar farm will be built on 450 acres of agricultural land about 10 miles from El Paso, Texas. Utility El Paso Electric (EE), which serves parts of New Mexico, will buy the electricity generated by the solar power plant — enough to power 74,000 homes  — under a 20-year power purchase agreement. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We think there’s room for a lot more solar power plants at this price,” says Gross. “The sun is very good in New Mexico and all the economics that make this project work are very good there.”

In March, First Solar (FSLR) said it would build a 30-megawatt thin-film photovoltaic solar farm in northeastern New Mexico.

eSolar’s five-megawatt Sierra demo plant outside Los Angeles, pictured above, has begun producing steam and will soon start generating electricity — “It’s the only solar power tower operating in North America,” Gross says.

Next year, ground will be broken on an eSolar power plant in India and NRG and eSolar have a deal to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of solar electricity.

“The idea of these plants dotting the desert and producing electricity has been our dream for a long time,” says Gross, “and now it’s a reality.”

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schottsolar09

photos: Schott

German solar company Schott on Monday cut the ribbon on a $100 million factory in Albuquerque, N.M., that will produce solar panels as well as receivers for solar trough power plants. Meanwhile, Chinese solar giant Suntech said Monday that it will build a solar cell manufacturing plant in the United States.

The move to North America comes as the European market softens as government subsidies ebb and solar panel prices fall. Despite the severe U.S. recession, Schott and Suntech are betting that the solar market will boom when the economy recovers and they’ll gain a competitive edge by manufacturing near customers.

“We think North America in general is the next big market for solar power,” Gerald Fine, CEO of Schott Solar’s North American operations, told Green Wombat. “Especially in the case of concentrated solar receivers you want to be close to your customers and provide great customer service and low shipping costs.”

schottsolar05And it doesn’t hurt to be generating green jobs as well. The 200,000-square-foot New Mexico factory employs 350 people. The plant was built too late to take advantage of the Obama stimulus package’s 30% tax credit for renewable energy manufacturing. But Fine said the tax credit will encourage Schott’s plans to eventually expand the facility to 800,000 square feet with a workforce of 1,500.

The receivers the factory makes are long glass-covered steel tubes that sit above parabolic troughs in large solar farms. The troughs concentrate sunlight on the receivers to heat a synthetic oil inside that is used to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.

Fine declined to discuss specific customers for the receivers but there are numerous solar trough power plants being planned for the Southwest, including Abengoa Solar’s Solana project in Arizona and utility FPL’s (FPL) Beacon 250-megawatt solar in California.

“We feel pretty comfortable with our order books in both product lines for the foreseeable future,” said Fine. “If you look at the publicly announced plans and try to put a reasonable probability of them being completed, there’s in excess of two gigawatts of power plants out there.”

Schott will have the North American receiver market to itself but will face some stiff competition when it comes to making photovoltaic modules. Thin-film solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR) is headquartered in neighboring Arizona and claims the lowest cost of manufacturing. Last year, German solar cell maker SolarWorld opened a factory outside Portland, Ore., while Silicon Valley’s SunPower (SPWRA) makes some of the most efficient solar cells — albeit overseas.

And now China’s Suntech (STP) is moving into the U.S. manufacturing market. The company on Monday said it is looking at several states as potential sites for a factory and will make a decision on where to locate the facility within six months

“We believe in the outstanding long-term prospects of the solar energy market in the United States, and we will continue to invest in our ability to meet a substantial portion of that potential growth through in-market manufacturing,” Suntech CEO Zhengrong Shi said in a statement.

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First Solar Electric, 701 El Dorado Valley Dr., Boulder City, NV

photo: First Solar

Sempra Generation on Wednesday said it has signed a deal for the United States’ largest photovoltaic power plant, a 48-megawatt solar farm to be built by First Solar in Nevada.

The thin-film solar power station will add on to a 10-megawatt solar farm built by First Solar (FSLR) last year adjacent to a Sempra  natural-gas fired power plant in Boulder City, Nev., outside of Las Vegas. Sempra Generation CEO Michael Allman told Green Wombat that Wednesday’s deal is part of a strategy to bring 500 megawatts of solar electricity online.

“The initial focus is on projects that are next to natural gas fired plants in the desert Southwest,” said Allman, whose company is a division of San Diego-based power giant Sempra Energy (SRE).

By building solar farms on the site of existing fossil fuel plants, Sempra can plug them in to the existing power grid, cutting costs for land, permits and electricity transmission. The 10-megawatt solar plant in Boulder City went online six months after ground was broken. Allman said Sempra also owns land next to its Mesquite natural gas power plant outside of Phoenix suitable for solar development.

“Those two power plants provide us with a substantial competitive advantage in both timing and cost,” said Allman. “These two initial projects will be the lowest cost energy delivered out of a solar project anywhere in the world.”

He declined to say what that cost is but an executive with PG&E (PCG), which is buying the electricity from the 10-megawatt Boulder City solar farm, previously told Green Wombat that the California utility was “very happy” with the rate it negotiated.

Allman said Sempra owns more than 4,000 acres in Arizona that could generate 300 megawatts of solar electricity. The company has also filed lease claims on 11,000 acres of desert land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in California’s Imperial Valley. But Allman said Sempra’s preference is to acquire private land to avoid the years-long BLM permitting process. The company will consider a range of solar technologies, including solar thermal, for future solar projects.

The 48-megawatt deal announced Wednesday is contingent upon Sempra signing a power purchase agreement with a utility.

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