First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) just announced that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the 230-megawatt AV Solar Ranch One photovoltaic solar project in Los Angeles County has become final and non-appealable.

Alan Bernheimer of First Solar told Greentech Media that the "Conditional Use Permit (from LA County) and final EIR (CEQA) were the major project permitting hurdles, which we now have behind us. Construction is expected to start in Q3 2011."

The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2013 with up to 400 workers employed during construction.

AV Solar Ranch One was assimilated by First Solar as part of the $297 million acquisition of NextLight's 1.1-gigawatt project pipeline in April of last year. The project, on 2,100 acres of previously-disturbed agricultural land in Antelope Valley, will be one of the biggest solar farms in the world.

When First Solar acquired NextLight, it combined the largest utility-scale PV project pipeline in the U.S. with the second largest.  570 megawatts (AC) of NextLight's pipeline was already under signed power purchase agreements with Western utilities. 

It's still early days, but 2010 was the year that utility-scale solar in the U.S. broke through. With over 5 gigawatts of Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) under contract through 2015, U.S. utilities are becoming a driver of growth in the global PV industry.

Despite the gigawatts of potential, the total amount of operating utility-scale solar in the U.S. is still less than 250 megawatts.  Most of the operating installations are dominated by First Solar and SunPower as project developers. But get ready for global PV players shifting their focus from saturated European feed-in tariff markets to the large-scale potential of the U.S. PPA market. 

GTM Research sees the U.S. utility market as a global industry driver over the next five years, with market potential approaching an estimated $8 billion per year by 2015.

There are a number of challenges looming. Financing bottlenecks caused by slow economic recovery will be an obstacle to timely project completion. In some cases, the PPA bidding process has led to contracts being signed at unworkable price points for project developers. These projects will rely heavily on stark PV price declines over the coming years in order to reach completion.

Nevertheless, the scales are tilting in favor of U.S. utility solar.

First Solar just acquired a tracker firm, RayTracker, but the company has not announced on which projects those trackers will be deployed.

Defense giant Northrop Grumman had opposed this project, claiming it would interfere with a nearby stealth technology test center, but the L.A. County Board of Supervisors squelched Northrop Grumman’s appeal late last year.


Map of AVSR-1 Project Site



Shayle Kann, Greentech Media's Managing Director of Solar Research, contributed to this article.  Detailed analysis of the U.S. utility PV market can be found in Mr. Kann's latest report here.