First Solar has purchased a land option from Ausra, a deal that First Solar believes will help it secure regulatory approval for a 550-megawatt solar farm in California.

Ausra had an option to buy land for developing a proposed 177-megawatt solar thermal power plant in San Luis Obispo County. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company decided to sell that option after it switched its business model earlier this year to become a solar steam equipment supplier rather than a power plant developer (see Inside Ausra's Big Change).

Ausra sold the option for an undisclosed sum to First Solar, which intends to use it for planning the 4,200-acre Topaz Solar Farm project. Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar bought the Topaz project from OptiSolar earlier this year after OptiSolar figured it couldn't get the financing to continue the project (see First Solar Buys OptiSolar's Power Projects).

Through the deal with OptiSolar, First Solar has the option to buy the land for the Topaz project, while the deal with Ausra gives First Solar the option to buy an adjacent parcel, said Alan Bernheimer, a spokesman for First Solar.

The purchase will enable First Solar to more easily win approval from San Luis Obispo County. The parcel obtained through OptiSolar includes farmland protected by the state's Williamson Act, which gives landowners tax breaks in exchange for restricting the land's use to agriculture and related open-space activities. Conservationists see the law as a good tool to encourage farmers to preserve their land and limit commercial development. Landowners can petition to cancel the contracts they've signed to put their properties under Williamson Act.

There is no legal restriction that would prevent First Solar from buying the land later and building the solar farm, Bernheimer said. But pursuing this path could create some political resistance.

Overcoming objections over land- or water use and concerns about wildlife protection are among the key challenges for solar power plant developers everywhere as they seek to install rows of equipment on hundreds of acres of land. A well publicized battle is waging over U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinsten's proposal to protect roughly 600,000 acres in California's Mojave Desert in order prevent solar farms from being built there (see Robert Kennedy on Being Subversive and BrightSource Energy Ditches Project in Eastern Mojave).

By purchasing the option from Ausra, First Solar could locate part or all of the Topaz project on non-Williamson Act land. The combined parcels give the solar company more flexibility in creating wildlife corridors or meeting other requirements that the county might impose as conditions for the permit.

"The land option gives us more a attractive layout for the project," Bernheimer said.

Buying the land option from Ausra also reduces the number of large-scale solar farms in the county from three to two, and gives the county more power to set policies for solar energy projects, Bernheimer added.

The county didn't have the final say over Asura's project because the project would have involved using a solar thermal technology that uses lenses to concentrate the sunlight for heating water for steam generation. The steam is then piped to generators for producing electricity.

This type of project is under the authority of the California Energy Commission, unless the project is less than 50 megawatts in generation capacity.

The Topaz project would use solar panels made by First Solar. That kind of project would make the county the lead agency for the permitting process.

San Jose, Calif.-based SunPower is developing the other, 250-megawatt project in the county. SunPower typically uses its own solar panels only or include panels from other suppliers for its solar farms.

First Solar hopes to gain county approval for the Topaz project next year, Bernheimer said. The company plans to start delivering power in 2011 and complete the project by 2013.

First Solar will sell the electricity to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which already has gotten approval from the California Public Utilities Commission for the power purchase agreement.

Ausra announced the 177-megawatt solar thermal power project back in 2007, and said the project would take up 1 square mile (640 acres) of land and begin generating electricity in 2010.

Asura also had signed a power sales agreement with PG&E. The company canceled that agreement before finalizing the land option sale to First Solar.