First Solar, Inc. (Nasdaq: FSLR) celebrated the installation of the first of its thin-film cadmium telluride (CdTe) modules at the 230-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One (AVSR1) project June 28.
“This is the first of 3.8 million panels,” said First Solar Vice President Jim Woodruff, who kept his welcoming talk short, remarking it was “a day for action, not talking.” Woodruff had clearly had his fill of talk during the two-month delay the project had been forced into during its dispute with Los Angeles County over the safety of the modules’ electrical connectors.
Woodruff was instrumental in negotiations that resulted in LA County accepting First Solar’s documentation that certified the module connectors as safe. “What a sweet day,” Woodruff said as he watched a County safety official ceremonially assist with the first module’s installation.
When construction on AVSR1 began in September 2011, module installation had originally been scheduled for April. But in early April a County safety inspector refused to allow installation to begin because the CdTe photovoltaic (PV) modules’ connectors did not have Underwriters Laboratory (UL) certification.
First Solar insisted its International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) approval, accepted by the National Electric Safety Code (NESC), was sufficient.
UL certification is the U.S. standard, whereas IEC certification is the international standard. First Solar panels are manufactured in Germany and Malaysia as well as in the U.S. and won acceptance internationally slightly before they became widely used domestically.
With the dispute settled, furloughed AVSR1 construction workers have begun returning to work. At the current level of 250 people, explained First Solar Director of Engineering, Procurement and Construction Tony Perrino, they will be installing 7,500 modules per day. By the time the full 385-person workforce is up to speed, they will be installing 27,000 modules per day.
First Solar Communications Director Alan Bernheimer said he is confident the project, located on 2,100 acres of former farmlands an hour northeast of Los Angeles, can get back on track. Phase one is scheduled to go on-line in the third quarter of this year. The full 230 megawatts are expected to be in service by the end of 2013.
First Solar is in charge of engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) at AVSR1, which is owned by Exelon Corporation (NYSE: EXC). First Solar is also in charge of EPC for the nearby 66-megawatt Alpine Solar project, owned by NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG), where First Solar’s thin-film modules are also slated to be installed. When installation stopped at AVSR1, construction also slowed at Alpine and 65 construction workers were released.
The job losses fell hard on the already struggling rural region where recent studies found as many as one in three homeowners behind or underwater with their mortgages. As the delay dragged on, the workers self-organized through an email chain and pushed the disputants to find a settlement.
Construction worker Karl Christensen of nearby Lancaster had been furloughed and out of work four weeks when he went back to work at AVSR1 June 25. Now, he said, he can bring his father, ill with stage four cancer, out from Kentucky.
Antelope Valley township residents Carolyn Perry and John Cubano were both furloughed from construction jobs for a month and called back immediately after the settlement. “I’m so grateful,” Perry said. Cubano added he was “thrilled to be back.” Both praised the efforts of Oso Town Council President Richard Skaggs, Vice President Gerard Conroy, Deputy County Supervisor Norm Hickling, and Fifth District Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s office for pushing toward the resolution that got them back to work.
First Solar’s share price, which was up near $140 in July 2011, was in the $25 range before the dispute arose. It fell below $13.50 near the beginning of June but jumped back to nearly $16 at the announcement of the settlement and now remains above $15.
It is possible the company’s prospects are on the rise. Also under development with First Solar as panel supplier and EPC leader are the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County (owned by MidAmerican Holdings) and the 550-megawatt Desert Center Solar Farm in Riverside County (owned by NextEra Energy and GE). And First Solar was named the panel supplier for enXco’s wind-adjacent 61-megawatt Catalina Solar Project just across Antelope Valley from AVSR1 in Kern County.