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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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photo: Wild Rose Images

California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to put a large swath of the Mojave Desert off-limits to renewable energy development is splitting the environmental movement and could derail some two dozen solar and wind power projects the state needs to comply with its ambitious climate change laws.

On the firing line are 17 massive solar power plants and six wind farms planned for federal land — land that would be designated a national monument under legislation Feinstein intends to introduce. The solar projects in question would be built by a range of companies, from startups BrightSource Energy and Stirling Energy Systems to corporate heavyweights Goldman Sachs (GS) and FPL (FPL), according to federal documents. (For the complete list, see below.)

The companies are among scores that have filed lease claims on a million acres of acres of desert dirt controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. California utilities PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) have signed long-term power purchase agreements for some of the projects now in jeopardy and are counting on the electricity they would produce to meet state-mandated renewable energy targets. PG&E itself has filed a solar power plant land claim in the proposed national monument.

The area of the desert in dispute is some 600,000 acres formerly owned by Catellus, the real estate arm of the Union Pacific Railroad, and donated to the federal government a decade ago by the Wildlands Conservancy, a Southern California environmental group. About 210,000 of those acres are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which opened part of the land to renewable energy projects.

“Many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released last week, notifying him that she will introduce legislation to designate the former Catellus lands a national monument. “Beyond protecting national parks and wilderness from development, the conservation of these lands has helped to ensure the sustainability of the entire desert ecosystem by preserving the vital wildlife corridors.”

The Catellus land controlled by the BLM forms something of a golden triangle between the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California and are particularly coveted for renewable energy development because of its proximity to transmission lines.

Alan Stein, a deputy district manager for the BLM in California, told Green Wombat that the solar and wind lease claims are in areas that are not designated as wilderness or critical habitat for protected species like the desert tortoise. “This is public domain land, ” he says.

Tortoises, however, are found across the Mojave, and battles over Big Solar’s impact on endangered wildlife are quietly brewing in several solar power plant licensing cases now being reviewed by the California Energy Commission.  Environmentalists find themselves walking a thin green line, trying to balance their interest in promoting carbon-free energy with protecting fragile desert landscapes and a host of threatened animals and plants.

Take BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah 400-megawatt solar power plant complex on the California-Nevada border. The three solar power plants to be built by the Oakland-based company will supply electricity to PG&E and Southern California Edison. But the project will also destroy some 4,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat and at least 25 tortoises will have to be relocated – a somewhat risky proposition as previous efforts in other cases have resulted in the deaths of the animals.

On Wednesday, the California Energy Commission granted two national environmental groups – the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club – the right to intervene in the Ivanpah case. “Defenders strongly supports … the development of renewable energy in California,” Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, wrote to the energy commission in a Jan. 23 letter.  “Defenders has several serious concerns about the potential impacts of this project on a number of rare, declining and listed species and on their associated desert habitat and waters.”

Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Johanna Wald wrote a letter with the Wilderness Society expressing concern over the impact of Ivanpah project on the desert tortoise but also made a strong statement of support for renewable energy development. “Our public lands harbor substantial wind, solar, and geothermal resources,” wrote Wald, who serves on a state task force to identify appropriate areas for renewable energy development. “Developing some of these resources will be important to creating a sustainable energy economy and combating climate change.”

The big national enviro groups are working with the government and power plant developers to create zones in the Mojave where renewable energy projects would be permitted while setting aside other areas that are prime habitat and wildlife corridors. A similar effort is underway on the federal level to analyze the desert-wide impact of renewable energy development.

Local environmental organizations, however, have split with the Big Green groups over developing the desert and other rural areas. In San Luis Obispo County,  Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar’s (FSLR) plans to build three huge solar farms within miles of each other has prompted some local residents worried about the impact on wildlife to organize in opposition to the projects.

And some small Mojave Desert green groups pledge to go to court to stop big solar projects. “We don’t want to see the Endangered Species Act gutted for the sake of mega solar projects,” veteran grass roots activist Phil Klasky told Green Wombat last year for a story on the solar land rush in the Mojave. “I can say the smaller environmental organizations I’m involved with are planning to challenge these projects.”

It would be unwise to underestimate Klasky. In the 1990s, he helped lead a long-running  and successful campaign to scuttle the construction of a low-level radioactive waste dump in tortoise territory in the Mojave’s Ward Valley – now a prime solar spot.

Still, while California’s senior senator’s move in the Mojave may exacerbate rifts in the environmental movement over renewable energy, it also could galvanize efforts to resolve critter conflicts in a comprehensive way. Otherwise, environmentalists of varying hues may find themselves fighting each other rather than global warming.

Update: I just had a conversation with BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs, who takes issue with my characterization that the Ivanpah project will “destroy” desert tortoise habitat. He points out that the company is taking care to minimize the impact of the power plant on the surrounding desert and that wildlife may still occupy the site. It would be more accurate to say that the project will remove desert tortoise habitat from active use during Ivanpah’s construction and operation.

(Below is a list of solar and wind projects that fall within the proposed Mojave national monument. Note: Solar Investments is a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs and Boulevard Associates is a subsidiary of FPL.)

source:  BLM

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photo: First Solar

The arid Southwest has no shortage of sun but has been rather slow to embrace Big Solar power plants, at least compared to California, where more than a half-dozen massive megawatt solar farms are being licensed.

That appears to be changing. On Tuesday, First Solar said it will give New Mexico its first big solar power plant, a 30 megawatt photovoltaic farm that will generate electricity from the company’s thin-film panels. Once the plant is built in Colfax County in northeastern New Mexico, First Solar will sell the electricity it generates to the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association under a 25-year power purchase agreement. Tri-State is an electric cooperative.

The deal continues First Solar’s (FSLR) move into the power plant business. Earlier this month, the Tempe, Ariz.-based company acquired OptiSolar’s 1.85 gigawatt project portfolio – including a 550-megawatt photovolatic power plant for California utility PG&E (PCG) – in a $400 million stock transaction.

First Solar has also signed contracts for smaller-scale solar farms with Southern California Edison (EIX) and Sempre (SRE).

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photo: Solyndra

It’s been a good news, bad news Friday for the solar industry. Silicon Valley startup Solyndra received a half billion-dollar loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a solar module factory while further up Interstate 880 OptiSolar moved to shut down its manufacturing operations.

OptiSolar too had asked for a federal loan guarantee to complete work on its Sacramento thin-film solar cell plant but a decision on the $300 million application couldn’t come soon enough to save the startup. “We continued to be unable to find a buyer for the technology and manufacuring business, and the board of directors decided that we needed to limit ongoing operational expense,” wrote OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer in an e-mail.

First reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Baker, OptiSolar will shut down factories in Sacramento and Hayward, Calif., and lay off 200 workers.  Earlier this month, OptiSolar sold its pipeline of solar power plants – including a 550-megawatt solar farm that will supply electricity to PG&E (PCG) – to rival First Solar  in a $400 million stock deal. At the time, OptiSolar said it intended to focus on manufacturing solar modules.

The news was definitely brighter Friday for Solyndra, which emerged from stealth mode last September with $600 million in funding and $1.2 billion in orders for its solar panels composed of cylindrical tubes imprinted with solar cells. Conventional rooftop solar panels must be tilted to absorb direct sunlight as they aren’t efficient at producing electricity from diffuse light. But the round Solyndra module collects sunlight from all angles, including rays reflected from rooftops. That allows the modules, 40 to a panel,  to sit flat and packed tightly together on commercial rooftops, maximizing the amount of space for power production.

The $535 million federal loan guarantee will allow the Fremont, Calif.-based company to build a second factory, which is expected to create 3,000 construction jobs and more than 1,000 other jobs once the plant is in operation. The factory will be able to produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar panels a year.

“The DOE Loan Guarantee Program funding will enable Solyndra to achieve the economies of scale needed to deliver solar electricity at prices that are competitive with utility rates,” Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet said in a statement. “This expansion is really about creating new jobs while meaningfully impacting global warming.”

Friday’s grant makes good on Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s pledge to speed up processing of renewable energy loan guarantee applications. The department had come under fire during the previous administration for taking years to dole out grants and loan guarantees for electric car and green energy projects.

Meanwhile, First Solar (FSLR) announced on Friday that it had manufactured 1 gigawatt of thin-film solar cells since beginning commercial production in 2002. It took the Tempe, Ariz., company six years to hit 500 megawatts and only eight months to produce the second 500 megawatts. First Solar’s annual production capacity will reach 1 gigawatt by year’s end, according to the company.

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

In the second big solar deal of the day, First Solar on Monday announced it was acquiring rival thin-film photovoltaic startup OptiSolar’s solar power plant projects in an all-stock transaction worth $400 million.

The acquisition vaults First Solar into the ranks of big solar power plant developers, giving it control of a 550-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm — the world’s largest — OptiSolar is building for utility PG&E (PCG) as well as 1,300 megawatts’ worth of projects in the pipeline. The deal also includes federal land claims OptiSolar filed on 136,000 acres in the Southwest desert that could support power plants generating 19,000 megawatts of solar electricity.

First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said 6,500 megawatts of those projects are in the front of the line in the “transmission queue” to connect to the power grid, allowing solar farms to be rapidly deployed over the next couple of years.

“This package in total would be very hard to replicate, if at all,” Ahearn said Monday afternoon during a conference call. “That positions us ideally to be the player in the U.S. utility market.”

OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told Green Wombat that OptiSolar will now focus on its solar cell manufacturing operations. “We needed to find a way to realize value for our shareholders,” he said. “This is a wonderful fit. We developed what we think is the largest power plant pipeline while First Solar developed the lowest cost thin-film technology.”

Silicon Valley-based OptiSolar quickly became a leader in the nascent solar power plant market but stalled as the financial crisis hit, forcing the company to halt work on a solar cell factory and lay off half its workers last November. Bernheimer said OptiSolar has applied for a $300 million federal loan guarantee to restart and expand its manufacturing operations.

He said OptiSolar CEO Randy Goldstein will join First Solar, along with about 30 other employees, when the deal closes.

First Solar (FSLR), backed by Wal-Mart’s (WMT) Walton family, has become become known as the Google (GOOG) of solar for its stratospheric stock price. The Tempe, Ariz.-based company jumped into the solar power plant market last year with deals to build small-scale solar power plants for Sempre Energy (SRE) and Southern California Edison (EIX).

The OptiSolar deal follows by hours the sale of solar financier MMA Renewable Ventures’ solar portfolio to Spanish solar developer Fotowatio.  “There’s a shakeout in the marketplace and there’s opportunities for consolidation,” MMA Renewable Ventures CEO Matt Cheney presciently told Green Wombat Monday morning

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In the green stimulus sweepstakes, big potential winners are companies like Silicon Valley startup OptiSolar.

The solar-cell maker came out of nowhere last year to score a deal with utility PG&E to build the world’s largest photovolaic power plant, a 550-megawatt monster that would cover some 9 1/2 square miles on California’s central coast. OptiSolar subsequently began construction of a factory in Sacramento to produce the thousands of thin-film solar panels needed for the project. Then the economy tanked and as financing dried up, OptiSolar laid off half its workforce – some 300 employees – and halted construction of the Sacramento facility.

With a Colorado solar company executive joining President Barack Obama as he signed the $787 billion stimulus legislation into law Tuesday at a solar-powered museum in Denver, OptiSolar and other renewable energy companies stalled by the financial crisis may see their fortunes revive. The package allows builders of big renewable energy projects to apply for a government cash grant to cover 30% of construction costs in lieu of claiming a 30% investment tax credit. A dearth of investors who finance solar power plants and wind farms in exchange for the tax credits has put in jeopardy green energy projects planned for the desert Southwest and the Great Plains. The cash grant would shave about $300 million off the projected $1 billion price tag for OptiSolar’s Topaz Solar Farm.

The stimulus package also includes $2.3 billion to fund a 30% manufacturing tax credit for equipment used to make components for green energy projects, a provision OptiSolar can tap to help finance its solar cell factories. And the company may be able to take advantage of the legislation’s government loan guarantees for large renewable energy projects.

“It will lower the cost of the factory we’re building in Sacramento and make it easier to attract financing,” OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told Green Wombat, noting the company’s priority is to complete the facility and begin production of solar panels. “The factory is more than shovel ready – our shovels are hanging on the wall where we put them when we had stop work in November.” (OptiSolar currently manufactures solar modules at its Hayward, Calif., plant.)

Fred Morse, senior adviser to Spanish solar energy giant Abengoa, says the stimulus package puts back on track a $1 billion, 280-megawatt solar thermal power plant the company will build outside Phoenix to produce electricity for utility Arizona Public Service. “With the stimulus bill we’re very confident we’ll be able to finance the project,” says Morse. He says Abengoa expects to use the government loan guarantees to obtain debt financing to fund construction of the project and then apply for the 30% cash refund. “I think the entire industry is very optimistic that these two aspects of the stimulus package, the grants and the temporary loan guarantees, should allow a lot of projects to be built.”

Mark McLanahan, senior vice president of corporate development for MMA Renewable Ventures, agrees. “I expect the government grants to attract new investors,” says McLanahan, whose San Francisco firm finances and owns commercial and utility-scale solar projects.

There are some strings attached, though.

To qualify for the cash grants, developers need to start shoveling dirt by Dec. 31, 2010. That means only a handful of big solar thermal power plants planned for California, for instance, are likely to make it through a complicated two-year licensing process in time to break ground by the deadline. One of those could be the first phase of BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah power plant on the California-Nevada border. But BrightSource’s biggest projects, part of a 1,300 megawatt deal signed with Southern California Edison (EIX) last week, won’t start coming online until 2013 at the earliest.

Another Big Solar project, Stirling Energy Systems’ 750-megawatt solar dish farm for San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), will be racing to meet the 2010 deadline. The project is in the middle of a long environmental review by the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management which currently is scheduled to stretch into 2010.

SolarReserve CEO Terry Murphy says his Santa Monica-based startup has a couple of solar power plant projects in the works that should be able to take advantage of the stimulus provisions. “The likelihood of us being able to close on a financial deal has increased,” Murphy says.

Solar analyst Nathan Bullard of research firm New Energy Finance expects the stimulus package to prompt a push for large photovoltaic power projects. That’s because in California such solar farms – which essentially take rooftop solar panels and mount them in huge arrays on the ground – do not need approval from the California Energy Commission and can be built relatively quickly.

That’s good news for companies like thin-film solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR), which builds smaller scale photovoltaic power plants, and SunPower (SPWRA), which has a long-term contract with PG&E (PCG) for the electricity generated from a planned 250-megawatt PV solar farm to be built near OptiSolar’s project.

“It’s great for PV because you can definitely can get construction done by the end of 2010,” says Bullard. “It’s also good news for smaller and mid-sized developers who couldn’t access tax-equity financing.”

The catch, however, is that renewable energy companies still must raise money from investors in a credit-crunched market to cover construction costs, as the government doesn’t pay out the cash until 60 days after a solar power plant or wind farm goes online. And as McLanahan points out, the cost of raising capital from private equity investors is typically higher and will add to the cost of renewable energy projects. Those costs will only rise if the government is late in paying out refunds.

MMA Renewable finances large commercial arrays and solar power plants and then sells the electricity under long-term contracts to customers who host the solar systems. The loan guarantee provision of the stimulus legislation will help secure financing from investors skittish that some of MMA Renewable’s customers may default on their agreements, according to McLanahan.

Says Murphy: “The fact that we’re getting iron into the ground and getting things moving helps us.”

The wind industry also stands to gain from the stimulus package through a three-year extension of the production tax credit for generating renewable electricity as well as the government cash grants and manufacturing tax credit. Despite a record year for wind farm construction in 2008, projects have come to a standstill in recent months as the financial crisis froze development and forced the European-dominated industry to lay off workers.

“I think it’s good down payment on what needs to happen,” says Doug Pertz, CEO of Clipper Windpower, one of two U.S. wind turbine makers. “A lot more needs to be done but I think this will start to bring a lot of people back into the marketplace.”

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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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