MidAmerican, First Solar start building 550-MW Topaz project

MidAmerican Solar and First Solar, Inc. (FSLR) marked the start of major construction at Topaz Solar Farms, located in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., with a ceremony on May 3. The 550-MW photovoltaic (PV) project, the largest in the world, will take three years to complete.

MidAmerican Solar, a unit of MidAmerican Energy Holdings,  will sell electricity from the 3,500-acre site Topaz project through a 25-year power purchase agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

“The Topaz project will benefit the environment and the local economy,” Paul Caudill, president of MidAmerican Solar said in a statement. “A project of this size creates jobs and plays a major role in our nation’s long-term electric energy supply. We are excited to be a part of the local San Luis Obispo community, and we look forward to having a major presence with stakeholders now and in the future. In addition to providing clean energy and jobs, we’re committed to working hand-in-hand with stakeholders to demonstrate how large-scale solar projects and geographies, such as the Carrizo Plain, can co-exist and benefit native biological species.”

The plant has had an eventful year. When first proposed, FirstSolar intended to develop the project by itself and supply it with its own panels. It first had to fend off environmental challenges from national organizations concerned about habitat for the Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo rat. A settlement was then reached to preserve habitat.

But following the Solyndra collapse last year, the Department Energy required additional documentation for the $1.9 bn loan guarantee that FirstSolar had conditionally won. The company could not meet the Sept. 30 deadline and withdrew its application.

Unable to obtain financing, Topaz was sold to MidAmerican in December for an undisclosed price.

The Topaz project is owned by MidAmerican Solar and will be constructed, operated and maintained by First Solar. Construction began in November 2011 and is expected to be complete by early 2015.

Developed by First Solar, the Topaz project will incorporate the company’s advanced thin-film PV modules, which generate electricity with no emissions, waste or water use and have the smallest carbon footprint of any PV technology. Electricity generated by the Topaz project will displace approximately 377,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year — the equivalent of taking approximately 73,000 cars off the road.