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Archive for the ‘First Solar’ Category

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With Big Solar thermal power plants bogged down in bureaucracy and facing environmental and financial hurdles, utilities are turning to smaller-scale thin-film solar stations that can be built in a matter of months.

In late December, PG&E (PCG), for instance, signed a 20-year contract for electricity generated  from a 10-megawatt thin-film solar power plant in Nevada owned by energy giant Sempra (SRE) that was officially dedicated on Thursday. The solar farm was built by First Solar (FSLR) in a scant six months. Meanwhile, the utility’s nearly two gigawatts worth of deals with solar thermal power companies won’t start producing power for another two years at the earliest. (Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric signed agreements with solar dish developer Stirling Energy Systems for 1.75 gigawatts in 2005 and those projects are just now beginning to move through the regulatory approval process.) And the financial crisis has made it more difficult for solar thermal developers to obtain the billions of dollars needed to finance the construction of a massive megawatt power plant.

Solar thermal power plants typically use miles of mirrors to heat a fluid to create steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine. Photovoltaic (or PV) solar farms essentially take solar panels similar to those found on residential rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. (Thin-film solar panels are made by depositing layers of photovoltaic materials on glass or flexible materials.)

“In terms of construction, photovoltaic tends to have a much faster development and construction track,” Roy Kuga, PG&E’s vice president for energy supply, told Green Wombat. “There is a segment of mid-sized projects – in the two to 20 megawatt size – where PV shows a distinct advantage in that market. There’s a huge potential for the PV market to expand.”

That’s good news for companies like First Solar – the Tempe, Ariz.-based company backed by the Walton family that is often called the Google of solar for its stock price and market prowess – and SunPower (SPWRA), the Silicon Valley solar cell maker that’s moved into the power plant-building business.

The speed at which the Sempra-First Solar project went online owes much to the fact that it was built on the site of an existing fossil fuel power plant. “It was already permitted for power generation, transmission existed and it did not have to go through the laborious California permitting process,” says Reese Tisdale, a solar analyst with Emerging Energy Research. “As such, First Solar was able to essentially plug and play.”

Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with New Energy Finance, says he expects utilities increasingly to bet on smaller-scale photovoltaic farms to help meet state mandates to obtain a growing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Just this week, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee said his utility plans to invest in solar power plant projects rather than just buy the power they produce.

“I think a utility could easily integrate, technically and financially, 100 megawatts of PV,” Bullard says.  If something is falling behind on your big solar thermal projects, you can plug in PV. I think you’ll see more of this with California utilities and I expect to see it more in Florida and North Carolina. It’s a great runaround to issues of siting and transmission.”

That’s because in California photovoltaic power plants do not need approval from the California Energy Commission. And smaller-scale plants take up far less land and can be built close to existing transmission lines. Most large solar thermal power plants typically are planned for the Mojave Desert and require the construction of expensive power lines to connect them to the grid.

The modular nature of PV solar farms means they can begin generating electricity as each segment is completed while a solar thermal plant only goes online once the entire project is finished.

“Certainly there is a sweet spot in which the project is large enough to gain advantages of scale,” says Tisdale. “Also, these small-to-mid-size systems can be spread about a transmission network, instead of at one site.”

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Solar cells may generate clean green electricity but manufacturing them involves a witches brew of toxic chemicals that could harm the environment if millions of solar panels end up in landfills, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

The California environmental group is calling for solar manufacturers to take back and recycle their panels at the end of their 20-to-25 year lifespan. “We feel it’s a very important time for the solar industry because it is getting ready to take off and before that happens it’s time to look at important issues around designing out some of the toxics,” Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition executive director Sheila Davis told Green Wombat. “The big issue is whether there is a transparent supply chain and whether solar companies monitor their supply chains.”

The solar industry’s trade group says it embraces the report’s recommendations. “We completely support take-back and recycling,” says Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington. “We’re in a fortunate position in that we’re still an emerging industry and have an opportunity now to establish standards and proactively set up processes before we end up with solar panels on every rooftop.”

Julie Blunden, vice president of public policy at San Jose solar cell maker SunPower, points out that an industry-backed group called PV Cycle in Europe is developing worldwide standards for the take-back and recycling of solar panels. “It’s not uncharted territory for the solar industry – we have actually been working on it for a while,” she says. “The idea is for industry to design something that makes sense for a global value chain and a global market.”

The toxics coalition was born in the early 1980s after chip plants were found to be contaminating groundwater with carcinogenic chemicals, setting off years of litigation and turning Silicon Valley into a Superfund hot spot. In more recent years, the toxics coalition has pressed computer manufacturers to take back and recycle PCs and reduce the use of toxic materials that often ended up discarded in Third World countries.

Silicon is the key material used in both semiconductors and conventional solar cells and its production and refinement involve various toxic chemicals.

“Although the solar PV boom is still in its early stages, disturbing global trends are beginning to emerge,” the report states. “For example, much of the polysilicon feedstock material (the highly refined silicon used as the basic material for crystalline silicon PV cells) is produced in countries like China, where manufacturing costs and environmental regulatory enforcement are low.”

But unlike computer makers in the 1980s and ’90s, solar companies like SunPower (SPWRA), Suntech (STP) and Sharp are not about to resist efforts to green up their business. “The people working for these companies are completely committed to preserving the environment and it drives the reason for being in solar,” notes Hanis.

And recycling solar panels can be good for business. When Green Wombat visited SolarWorld’s new solar cell factory in Oregon in October,  COO Boris Klebensberger touted the German company’s recycling program as a competitive advantage, both with customers and as a way to reduce manufacturing costs by recovering expensive polysilicon.

For instance, thin-film solar manufacturer First Solar (FSLR), whose cells are made from cadmium telluride, pre-funds the cost of its take-back program through an insurance program so customers are assured that the panels they buy will be properly disposed of at the end of their lifespan. That addresses a particular challenge the solar industry faces: Will the company that makes a particular solar panel be around a quarter century later to take back and recycle its products? And if not, who takes responsibility for doing so?

Davis says the toxics coalition has approached some solar companies but declined to identify them. “We haven’t talked to a lot of them but the ones we have talked to have been responsive,” she says. “I think that’s because most people in these companies do have an interest in being green. They’re much more receptive to looking at models that would promote their environmental performance.”

Beyond corporate self-interest, government policy considerations are likely to drive the solar industry to devise alternative manufacturing processes and implement recycling programs. For instance, European Union restrictions on various toxic materials in electronic products have encouraged computer makers to green their machines lest they be shut out of a major market. And these days, Dell (DELL) and even Apple (AAPL) see a marketing advantage to touting environmentally friendly computing.

The solar industry has time on its side when it comes to developing toxic reduction and recycling programs. While an iPod may end up on the trash heap in 18 months, the typical solar panel won’t come off the roof for decades.

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Amid the daily drumbeat of mass layoffs, here’s some sunny news: Solar startup Suniva cut the ribbon Thursday on a photovoltaic cell factory outside Atlanta.

As solar factories go, Suniva’s plant – the first such facility in the Southeast – is relatively small, making 32 megawatts of solar cells annually until  production is fully ramped up to 175 megawatts in 2010. But the factory will create 100 green collar jobs and it follows the opening of  SolarWorld’s new solar cell fab outside Portland, Ore., that will  produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar cells, and thin-film solar startup HelioVolt’s factory in Austin. Meanwhile, Solyndra, a Silicon Valley thin-film solar startup, is expanding its production facilities while Bay Area rival OptiSolar is building a Sacramento factory that will employ 1,000 workers to produce solar cells for the power plant the company is building for utility PG&E (PCG). (Leading thin-film solar company First Solar (FSLR) operates a factory in Ohio as well as plants in Malaysia.) But Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) last week said it has put plans for U.S. factories on hold due to the credit crunch.

The Suniva grand opening comes on a good news-bad news day for the solar industry. On one hand, President-elect Barack Obama is expected to nominate alternative energy proponent and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as Secretary of Energy. But the solar industry faces a tough year ahead. On Thursday, research firm New Energy Finance, echoing other analysts, predicted prices for polysilicon – the base material of conventional solar cells – would fall 30% in 2009. That’s bad news for conventional solar cell makers like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech if they’ve locked in silicon supplies at higher prices but provides an opening for further growth for thin-film solar companies that make solar cells that use little or no polysilicon.

“We expect to see significant drops in the price of modules next year,” wrote New Energy Finance CEO Michael Liebreich.  “Any manufacturer who does not have access to cheap silicon and who has not focused on manufacturing costs is going to be in trouble. The big shake-out is about to begin. The next two years will change the economics of PV electricity out of recognition.”

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photo: Southern California Edison

While demand for solar panels is expected to continue to grow by double-digits in the years ahead, 2009 could be a make-or-break year for some companies, according to an analysis from HSBC Global Research.

After grappling with a shortage of polysilicon – the base material of conventional solar cells – for the past couple years, the industry now faces falling prices. The spot market for polysilicon has plummeted 35% since October, writes HSBC alternative energy analyst Christine Wang, who predicts prices will fall 30% next year.

That’s bad news for solar module makers who locked in long-term contracts at higher prices – which looked like a smart move when polysilicon was in short supply and prices rising rapidly. “The winners will likely be the companies with competitive cost structures, scale, good product  quality, strong balance sheets, and strong customer relationships,” according to Wang. “We believe that new entrants and small players will suffer the most as they lack brand recognition.”

The culprits are the usual suspects – the global financial crisis as well as some cutbacks in subsidies from countries like Spain. Solar cell companies that have rapidly ramped up production over the past two years now may be saddled with too many high-priced products.

Wang downgraded Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) and set a price target of $4.50 – down sharply from HSBC’s earlier target of $55. Suntech was trading at near $10 Monday afternoon but still nearly 90% off its 2008 high.  (SunPower (SPWRA), First Solar (FSLR) and other solar cell makers have also seen their share prices nose-dive.) “High portion of polysilicon based on contract prices will hurt Suntech,” writes Wang, who estimated that 80% of Suntech’s polysilicon supply is locked into contracts “on less favorable fixed prices.”

Falling panel prices is good news for solar system installers like Sungevity and Akeena Solar (AKNS) and their residential and commercial customers. When Green Wombat ran into Akeena CEO Barry Cinnamon in San Francisco at the announcement of Better Place’s Bay Area electric car project, he said he was in no rush to enter into long-term contracts with solar cell suppliers as he expects prices will continue to fall in 2009.

Still, not all the news is gloomy for the industry. Wang expects that the financial crisis won’t derail government support for solar, given climate change pressures and state mandates to increase the use of renewable energy. The move by utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) to sign long-term contracts for electricity from photovoltaic power plants will also keep demand high in coming years.

Wang projects solar cell demand will grow 45% between 2008 and 2012. “Developed countries are increasingly focused on environmental protection and curtailing the causes of climate change, and we do not believe this trend will shift just because of a (hopefully) short-term financial crisis,” she wrote.

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solana1The credit crunch is taking a toll on the United States’ nascent solar industry, scuttling big renewable energy projects and curtailing expansion plans, solar executives said Wednesday as they proposed the inclusion of green incentives in the Obama economic stimulus plan.

Spanish energy giant Abengoa, for instance, has put on hold plans to build its 280-megawatt Solana solar power plant outside Phoenix to supply electricity to utility Arizona Public Service (PNW) in a $4 billion deal, said Fred Morse, senior advisor to Abengoa Solar.

“We have serious issues getting financing,” said Morse during a conference call held by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Congress in October passed a 30% investment tax credit crucial to the solar industry. But Wall Street’s meltdown has scared off investors that normally would finance large solar projects in exchange for the tax credits.

“The investment tax credit was passed but unfortunately there was no ‘I’ in the ITC,” Morse added. “We have trouble finding tax-equity investors, the financing is gone.”

Suntech America president Roger Efird said that after Congress passed the investment tax credit, the Chinese solar cell maker immediately doubled its sales force in the U.S. That expansion has now hit a wall.

“Plans to double our sales force by the end of 2009 are currently on hold, primarily because business has slowed in fourth quarter because of the credit crunch,” he said. “We had been considering establishing manufacturing in the U.S. The timing of those plans depend on the growth of the market in the U.S. and how long it takes to get through this downturn.”  Suntech’s (STP) stock – like those of rivals SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR) – has been walloped by the market chaos and is down 94% from its 52-week high.

Ron Kenedi of Sharp Solar said the dealers and installers who buy the Japanese solar module maker’s products have had a hard time securing credit to finance their operations.

In response, the solar industry’s trade group on Wednesday proposed that the federal government cut through the credit crunch by adopting tax and investment policies to stimulate the solar sector and create 1 million jobs.

The centerpiece of the plan is a $10 billion program to install 4,000 megawatts of solar energy on federal buildings and at military installations. “The Department of Defense alone could jump start this industry and it could have widespread impact on the use of solar, similar to what it did for the Internet,” said Nancy Bacon, an executive with Michigan thin-film solar cell maker Energy Conversion Devices (ENER).

Bacon noted that the federal government is the world’s largest utility customer, spending $5.6 billion annually on electricity. “This would create 350,000 sustainable jobs,” she said. “The solar industry is ready to deploy these systems immediately.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association also wants Congress to enact a 30% tax refundable tax credit for the purchase of solar manufacturing equipment to encourage solar companies to build their factories in the U.S. That would result in an estimated 315,000 new jobs. Making the current investment tax credit refundable would also help loosen up financing for solar projects, the association said.

Other policies on the SEIA agenda:

  • Establishment of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard that would require states to obtain a minimum of 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and 25% by 2025, with 30% of the total coming from solar.
  • Rapid deployment of new transmission lines to connect cities to remote areas where wind and solar power is typically produced.
  • Expedited approval of solar power plant projects on federal land in the Southwest.
  • Creation of an Office of Renewable Energy in President-elect Obama’s office to coordinate the procurement and permitting of solar power and transmission lines.

“We are working closely with the Obama energy transition team and have been in contact with Congress,” said SEIA president Rhone Resch. “These polices are exactly the kind of shot in the arm our economy needs today.”

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The wind, solar and geothermal industries have wasted no time pressing the incoming Obama administration to implement an alternative energy agenda to spur investment and create jobs.

During a conference call Thursday, the leaders of the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association and other trade groups lobbied for a plethora of legislation and policy initiatives. None of these proposals are new, but given Barack Obama’s campaign promises to promote alternative energy and the strengthened Democratic majority in Congress, the industry has the best chance in many years of seeing this wish list made real.

  • A five-year extension of the production tax credit for the wind industry (it currently has to be renewed every year) to remove uncertainty for investors.
  • A major infrastructure program to upgrade the transmission grid so wind, solar and geothermal energy can be transmitted from the remote areas where it is produced to major cities. Obama advisor Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google (GOOG), recently joined with General Electric (GE) chief Jeff Immelt to launch a joint initiative to develop such smart grid technology as well as push for policy changes in Washington to allow the widespread deployment of renewable energy by rebuilding the nation’s transmission system.
  • Impose a national “renewable portfolio standard” that would mandate that utilities obtain a minimum 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and at least 25% by 2020. Two-thirds of the states currently impose variations of such requirements.
  • Mandate that the federal government – the nation’s single largest consumer of electricity – obtain more energy from renewable sources.
  • Enact a cap-and-trade carbon market.

“If the administration and Congress can quickly implement these policies, renewable energy growth will help turn around the economic decline while at the same time addressing some of our most pressing national security and environmental problems,” the green energy trade groups said in a joint statement.

No doubt those measures are crucial to spurring development of renewable energy and creating green collar jobs. But the major obstacle confronting the alt energy industry right now is the credit crunch that is choking off financing for big wind and solar projects and scaring away investors from more cutting-edge but potentially promising green technologies.

A focus by President Obama and Congress on restoring confidence in the financial system will most likely do the most for green investment as well as restore luster to battered renewable energy stocks like First Solar (FSLR), SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP).

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Photo: Todd Woody

The land rush to stake prime sites in the Mojave Desert for solar power plants has moved east from California to a state that knows a thing or two about desert dreaming and scheming — Nevada.

When Green Wombat’s story on the solar land rush was published in the July 21 issue of Fortune (see “The Southwest desert’s real estate boom”), solar energy developers, financiers and speculators had filed lease claims on 226,000 acres of federal land in Nevada. Today, 702,000 acres are in play, largely thanks to Goldman Sachs’ aggressive moves to lock up land. The New York investment giant has put claims on about 300,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management dirt in the Silver State — in one week alone, it filed claims on some 187,000 acres.

Given its financial firepower, Goldman’s designs on the desert have been a matter of intense interest. (The firm also has filed claims on 125,000 acres in California.) Goldman (GS) declined to discuss its solar strategy, but a review of BLM documents and interviews with green energy executives sheds some light on its power plans as the financial crisis triggers a shakeout in the solar land rush.

Over the past two years, scores of companies — from Silicon Valley startups to Chevron (CVX) to utility FPL (FPL) — have scrambled to put lease claims on the nation’s best solar real estate to build massive megawatt solar power plants. In California, where utilities face a state mandate to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 with a 33% target by 2020, claims have been filed on nearly 1 million acres. If all those solar stations were built, they would generate a staggering 60,000 megawatts of electricity, or nearly twice the power that California currently consumes.

With most of the prime solar hot spots taken in California, the action is moving to sun-drenched states like Nevada where there’s plenty of wide-open desert land. The BLM has yet to issue any leases and is currently evaluating the applications on a first come, served basis. A key consideration: whether the applicant can deploy a viable solar technology.

But with the credit crunch threatening to derail many of those projects, companies are jockeying to score the best sites – those near transmission lines and water – when the weak are weeded out by a failure to obtain financing or a proven solar technology. Some sites have two or three companies queued up in case the first company in line falters.

For its part, Goldman Sachs has brought in its Cogentrix Energy subsidiary to develop its solar projects, according to BLM records.  Cogentrix is a Charlotte, N.C.-based owner and operator of coal and natural gas-fired power plants that Goldman acquired for $2.4 billion in 2003.

“Cogentrix doesn’t have a solar technology,” says Rob Morgan, executive vice president and chief development officer for Silicon Valley solar startup Ausra. He says Ausra, which is building a solar power plant for utility PG&E and itself has staked claims in Arizona and Nevada, has held discussions with Goldman about its solar technology.

European renewable energy companies are also taking advantage of the market turmoil. State and federal records show that Iberdrola Renewables, a spinoff of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, has quietly acquired a year-old Henderson, Nev., startup called Pacific Solar Investments — and its claims on about 180,000 acres of desert land in Arizona, California and Nevada. Iberdrola Renewables is the world’s largest wind developer.

The saga of Pacific Solar shows how cutthroat the competition for solar real estate has become. Just ask Avi Brenmiller, CEO of Israeli solar power plant company Solel, which last year inked a 553-megawatt deal with PG&E (PCG). Brenmiller now finds himself up against his former COO, David Saul, who set up Pacific Solar and began filing land claims while still working for Solel, according to BLM  records and Brenmiller. During this time, Saul also was making land claims on behalf of a second solar company, IDIT, where he serves as CEO, according to filings with the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.

Five days after leaving Solel in August 2007, Saul filed a claim on a California site, getting second in line behind Goldman but beating his former employer to the punch by a week. Solel is now behind Pacific Solar and IDIT on two other sites. “So he’s now a competitor in the land rush, which is one of the problems we face,” Brenmiller told me ruefully when we met in San Francisco earlier this year.

Saul did not respond to requests for comment. Iberdrola Renewables also did not return requests for comment.

French energy company EDF’s U.S. subsidiary, enXco, meanwhile has been joined in the land rush by Portuguese utility company EDP and Germany’s Solar Millennium. Spanish renewable energy heavyweight Acciona’s name doesn’t appear on any land claims. But the CEO of Acciona’s U.S. solar operations, Dan Kabel, started a company called Bull Frog Green Energy that has filed claims on 56,000 acres in California and Nevada. Kabel did not respond to a request for comment.

Other new players in the desert solar game include U.S. energy giant Sempra (SRE), which wants to lease 11,000 acres in California’s Imperial County for a 500-megawatt photovoltaic power plant. That could be good news for solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR), which is currently building a smaller solar power plant for Sempra in Nevada. Johnson Controls (JCI), the Fortune 100 automotive and power systems conglomerate, has put in a solar land claim in Nevada. Even former hotel magnate Barry Sternlicht, founder of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, wants a piece of the action through his Starwood Energy Group, which has filed claims in Arizona and Nevada to build solar power plants.

SolarReserve, a Santa Monica, Calif-based solar startup backed by Citigroup and Credit Suisse, has BLM land claims in California and Nevada and is also negotiating with smaller companies that staked claims on prime solar power plants with access to the transmission grid.

“We have done deals with three or four applicants in the BLM queue,” SolarReserve chief operating officer Kevin Smith tells Green Wombat. “The smaller companies with land claims are typically speculators who don’t have their own technology.”

Industry insiders say a shakeout in the land rush is inevitable, given the credit crunch and too many companies in the chase for the best solar power plant sites.

“A drawn-out financial crisis will reshape the renewable sector, most likely forcing a wave of consolidation,” says Reese Tisdale, research director for Emerging Energy Research, a Cambridge, Mass., consultant. “If someone holds land and someone holds a technology, maybe there’s a deal out there.”

That’s Ausra’s thinking. With the financial crisis putting the billions of dollars needed to build big solar projects out of reach, the company is repositioning itself as a supplier of solar technology as well as a builder of solar power plants.

“We see our future as being a technology provider,” says Ausra’s Morgan, who says the company has had discussions with various power plant developers. “And hopefully a lot of these developers in the BLM queue will use Ausra technology.”

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The economy may be all trick and no treat, but you wouldn’t know it from First Solar, one of the few public solar cell makers and thus a bellwether for the industry. This week the Tempe, Ariz.-based company reported solid third-quarter earnings and unveiled two deals that mark a big expansion in the U.S. market.

It agreed to supply solar installer SolarCity with 100 megawatts of thin-film modules and made a $25 million investment in the Silicon Valley startup – which represents a 10% stake, valuing SolarCity at $250 million. The other deal didn’t get much attention – it was buried in the earnings report – but is significant nonetheless. First Solar (FSLR) will team up with utility giant Edison International (EIX)‘s power plant subsidiary, Edison Mission Energy, to develop large-scale solar power stations. (First Solar just completed a 2.4 megawatt project for Southern California Edison as part of the utility’s 250-megawatt commercial rooftop initiative and will finish by year’s end a 12-megawatt solar power plant in Nevada for Sempra (SRE).)

“By combining Mission’s extensive track record of power project development with First Solar’s low-cost systems and construction capability, we believe we’ve created a powerful engine for future growth in the U.S. utilities segment,” First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said during the company’s earnings call Wednesday, according to a transcript published by the Seeking Alpha business blog.

But it was Ahearn’s comments on the European market – 85% of First Solar’s business is in Germany, for instance – that is of most interest to investors.

While he predicts the European market will remain strong – First Solar expects its 2009 net sales to range from $2 billion to $2.1 billion, up from $1.22 to $1.24 for 2008 – he did note some red flags, particularly for utility-scale solar power stations.

“Our review indicates that solar projects lending outside of Germany has essentially stopped for the time being,” Ahearn said. “Today, we have identified potential financial risk in our customer base that represent approximately 15% to 20% of our planned sales in Europe in 2009.”

“We believe most of our European customers outside of Germany have sufficient balance sheet strength to bridge any near-term projects delays,” he added.

During the Solar Power International conference in San Diego this month, there was much buzz that solar companies that had ramped up their production capacity over the past couple of years would be hit by an oversupply of solar modules just as customers get crunched by the credit crisis.

But Ahearn told analysts on Wednesday that First Solar’s thin-film modules – which are made by depositing solar cells on plates of glass and use minimal amounts of expensive silicon – would continue to sell for less than conventional cells and thus remain attractive to customers. “We therefore assume that any price competition is unlikely to have a sustained impact on First Solar,”  he said.

Despite First Solar’s moves into the U.S. market, Ahearn acknowledged the immediate future is uncertain. While Congress extended a key investment tax credit for eight years as part of the financial bailout package, investors have lost their appetite for tax equity partnerships that would buy those credits from solar companies in exchange for financing the construction of power plants.

“In the short-term, our review indicates that the traditional investors in tax equity – financial institutions – have largely stopped participating,” Ahearn said. “We assume some of these investors will return to the market in 2009, but the timing and future cost of this funding is difficult to predict. The possibility of more expensive tax equity and its impact on solar electricity prices for both new and pending projects remains a major uncertainty going into 2009.”

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In a move that will bring thin-film solar panels to the U.S. residential market, First Solar has signed a deal to provide installer SolarCity with 100 megawatts’ worth of solar arrays over the next five years. First Solar is also investing $25 million into SolarCity, the Silicon Valley startup backed by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk.

This is First Solar’s initial foray into the home market — and apparently the first of any thin-film solar module maker. Thin-film solar panels are made by depositing solar cells on sheets of glass or flexible material and use little of the expensive silicon that forms the heart of more bulky conventional solar modules. That makes thin-film panels cheaper, although they are less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. And thin is in for homeowners who prefer less-obtrusive panels on their roofs.

SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive told Green Wombat that First Solar’s more economical panels will allow the company to expand to the East Coast and other areas that do not heavily subsidize solar. SolarCity installs solar panels at no cost to the homeowner and then leases them back for a monthly charge. “What matters is not efficiency but cost per kilowatt-hour,” Rive says, noting that solar programs like California’s reduce rebates to panel makers as the number of installations increase. “We need solutions that address declining subsidies.”

Added SolarCity communications director Jonathan  Bass: “When we talk to customers their four biggest priorities are cost, cost, cost and aesthetics.”

Beginning in early 2009, SolarCity will start receiving 20 megawatts’ worth of First Solar panels a year. Rive won’t disclose how many megawatts SolarCity currently installs annually, but 20 megawatts would seem to represent a significant expansion of the startup’s operations. Over the past two years, SolarCity has installed solar arrays for 2,500 homes and small businesses and a spokeswoman says the First Solar deal would supply enough panels for about 5,000 homes a year.

The deal also marks a move to diversify on the part of Tempe-Ariz.-based First Solar (FSLR)  — known as the Google (GOOG) of solar for its once-stratospheric stock price. The company, backed by Wal-Mart’s (WMT) Walton family, had primarily focused on the overseas commercial rooftop market. This year though First Solar has signed deals to build thin-film solar power plants for utilities like Southern California Edison (EIX) and Sempra (SRE).

First Solar on Wednesday reported that third quarter revenues rose 30% to $348.7 million from the second quarter and was up 119% from the year-ago quarter. Profit spiked 42% to $99.3 million from the second quarter and increased nearly 116% from a year ago.

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photos: SolarWorld

HILLSBORO, Ore. – A solar cell factory has sprouted in Oregon’s Silicon Forest amid the region’s old-growth semiconductor plants. And who is providing these well-paid, high-tech green jobs, investing in America rather than fleeing to Asia to set up shop? The Germans.

Bonn-based SolarWorld AG on Friday officially flips the switch on the United States’ largest solar cell plant. (See the Fortune video here.) The company, the world’s fifth largest solar cell manufacturer, has recycled a former Komatsu factory built to produce silicon wafers for the chip industry  Last week, SolarWorld America president Boris Klebensberger gave Green Wombat a sneak peak at the new Hillsboro plant and talked about why a German company, whose domestic solar market is the planet’s largest, is pursuing a made-in-America strategy. (SolarWorld’s German rival Solon AG, meanwhile, on Friday opened a smaller solar module plant in Tucson, Ariz.)

“I know a lot of people will say, ‘You idiot, Boris. You can’t manufacture in the U.S.,’ ” says Klebensberger, 39, who sports a hoop earring and has a penchant for saying what’s on his mind.

That has been the conventional wisdom. While thin-film solar companies like First Solar (FSLR), Solyndra and Energy Conversion Devices (ENER) have built factories in the U.S., traditional silicon-based module makers such as SunPower (SPWRA) have outsourced production overseas.

But SolarWorld is counting on its expertise in manufacturing in high-cost Germany and its new American branding to give it a competitive advantage. “Made in America is a very big selling point,” says SolarWorld marketing director Anne Schneider. “Customers like that.”

Like other solar cell makers, SolarWorld is trying to build a brand around an increasingly commoditized product. “Even in a commodity business this is a brand,” says Klebensberger. “If you have to choose between two products that are technologically the same,  you’ll probably choose the one made in the U.S.”

SolarWorld jumped into the U.S. market in 2006 when it acquired Royal Dutch Shell’s solar cell factory in Camarillo, Calif., and a silicon ingot plant in Vancouver, Wash. “This was an opportunity for SolarWorld to establish itself in the U.S. market very quickly and get an employee base,” says Klebensberger, who also serves as COO of SolarWorld’s global operations.

The company was founded in 1998 by, as Klebensberger puts it, “five crazy guys who people thought were on drugs” when they said they were going into the solar business. (Klebensberger was employee No. 7.) But Germany’s lucrative incentives for renewable energy quickly turned the nation into a solar powerhouse and SolarWorld went public in 1999. Revenues – $931 million last year – have been growing around 30%-40% annually and the company has a market cap of $3.1 billion.

SolarWorld saw a potentially huge opportunity in the U.S. but the Shell plant was relatively small – producing 80 megawatts of solar cells annually – so Klebensberger went shopping for a new factory. He ruled out California – too expensive – before settling on Hillsboro, 20 miles west of Portland.

The cost of living was reasonable – at least compared to California – and Oregon is on the forefront of promoting sustainability and the green economy. And just as importantly, Intel (INTC) and other chip companies had opened semiconductor factories, or fabs, in the area in the 1980s and ’90s. “A lot of our workforce came from established chip companies or those that closed their fabs,” says Klebensberger, sipping tea from a coffee cup emblazoned with “Got Silicon?”

“The manufacturing and product is different but the raw starting material is the same and there’s a lot of similarity in the equipment,” adds Gordon Bisner, vice president of operations and a chip industry veteran. “There’s a lot of the same skill sets from a maintenance and engineering standpoint and understanding the basic manufacturing principles and what it takes to manufacture a product successfully in the United States.”

Klebensberger’s team found an old Komatsu silicon wafer fab that had stood empty for years. They bought the 480,000-square foot building for $40 million last year and began retrofitting it. “We needed a quick ramp-up,” says Klebensberger. “This business is all about speed.”

The retrofit took about 15 months – though the minimalist gray industrial decor of the Komatsu era remains. When fully built out in a couple of years, the plant will produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar cells annually and employ 1,400 workers. In the meantime, the target is 100 megawatts by the end of 2008, and 250 megawatts in 2009.

In one corner of the building, a room of steel vats cook up polysilicon, producing eight-foot-long silicon ingots in the shape of giant silver pencils. Those ingots are taken to another room where wiresaw machines slice them into wafers. The wafers then travel down a conveyor belt where robots wash them and scan for imperfections.

“What’s critical here is the equipment,” says Bisner over the hum of the machines. “Our competitive advantage is how we use the equipment, how can we get every little bit of photovoltaic cell out of the end of the line. It takes equipment, it takes technology and it takes people too.”

In an adjoining room, the wafers are imprinted with contacts and transformed into photovoltaic cells. Depending on customer demand, SolarWorld will sell both silicon wafers and finished cells. The company currently gets 10% to 15% of its revenues from the U.S.

SolarWorld isn’t the only solar company wanting a made-in-America label. Sanyo this week announced it will build a solar cell factory in Salem, south of Portland. And Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) earlier this month acquired a California-based solar installer and announced a joint venture with San Francisco-based MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA) to build solar power plants. Suntech chief strategy officer Steven Chan told Green Wombat this week that Suntech will likely open factories in the U.S. within a couple years.

Says Klebensberger, “We provide green jobs. We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it.”

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