Behind schedule because of their standoff with Los Angeles County, First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR) is powering ahead to get phase one of its 230-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One (AVSR1) on-line by the end of 2012.
AVSR1 Community Liaison Adam Eventov just announced to the surrounding communities that the site’s 6:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday hours will be extended to 10 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays; a Sunday 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m shift will also be added.
Eventov pledged that the evening and Sunday activity construction noise would be “within the limits of Los Angeles County ordinances” and that lighting would be controlled.
First Solar's relationship with local communities has been strained since First Solar bought the AVSR1 project from NextLight in the spring of 2011. First Solar’s $140,000 peace offering, made in January, still has not been accepted.
Though it is doing engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) for Exelon Corporation (NYSE: EXC), to which it sold the project earlier this year, some community resentment persists toward First Solar.
“It's nice to tell us that the die is already cast and we are not counted,” read an email to the Los Angeles County Deputy Supervisor from Fairmont Town Council, the community nearest to the project. “If these people are going to run roughshod over us then they better come up with some ‘sugar instead of vinegar.’ Of First Solar’s promise that the AVSR1 project would be a good neighbor, the email continued, “I haven't seen any good yet, only ‘screw them, get the project done.’ We as a Town Council object to night work.”
An email from an Oso Town Council representative, the next closest community, charged First Solar with “blatant lies and misinformation” and “decisions that are brokered before any attempt to get community input.”
As far as Oso is concerned, the email went on, “We do not want you to create an even bigger problem with bigger and longer shifts. Only when you come to our community with real interest and you start doing those things the community has asked for so many times, can you then ask for us to support you.”
The AVSR1 site “is a terrible eyesore,” the email concluded, asking yet again, as locals have many times before, that the landscaping be modified. “Come back after that and we can discuss things further.”
Local leaders have suggested publicly and privately that such feelings may have been at the root of vandalism committed the night of July 9-10, when an unidentified vandal caused an estimated $100,000 in damages to AVSR1 by cutting both a transmission line and a water pipe.
A report was filed with the Sheriff’s Department and First Solar offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the vandal’s apprehension, but there was no response. The vandalism disrupted a peace in Antelope Valley that followed the settlement of differences between First Solar and Los Angeles County that set the construction schedule back two months and caused hundreds of local residents to be furloughed.
The stoppage began in early April after an LA County safety inspector disallowed the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) certification of First Solar’s cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film photovoltaic PV panels and demanded the County-required Underwriters Laboratory (UL) certification.
The impasse was resolved when County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, in response to community representatives’ call for him to get their residents back to work, reportedly pushed the County’s Building and Safety Department to accept First Solar’s certification.
The vandalism was announced at a subsequent meeting between First Solar and local leaders. “When you have dissatisfied people in the community, this sort of thing happens,” an Oso Town Council officer observed.
“At least one dissatisfied person,” several First Solar officials snapped back.
Hostility was expressed at the meeting on both the company and community side. Locals who described themselves as representatives of “disgruntled neighbors” complained again about the AVSR1 landscaping.
“Morally, how can you do that, destroy peoples’ homes?” one resident demanded, calling the site “out-and-out ugly.”
Acts of vandalism against unwanted renewable energy development is not unknown in Antelope Valley. Eight acts amounting to more than a half million dollars in damages were committed against wind projects there during the summer of 2011. Shortly after, proposed NextEra Energy (NYSE: NEE) and Element Power wind projects were postponed.
Tensions between LA County and First Solar also remain high. GTM has seen confidential County reports documenting issues with First Solar workmanship, as well as County inspector harassment. The reports are from both the AVSR1 site and from the nearby Alpine Solar site, at which First Solar is doing EPC for NRG Solar (NYSE: NRG).
Another nuisance ahead for the still financially burdened First Solar is a class action lawsuit brought by former AVSR1 employees who allege (1) failure to pay minimum wage or overtime, (2) failure to provide accurate itemized wage statistics, (3) failure to maintain accurate payroll records, (4) failure to provide proper rest breaks, (5) failure to provide proper meal breaks, (6) failure to provide customary wages, and (7) failure to reimburse expenses. There are at least a dozen former workers involved and more are expected to join.
GTM was unable to reach First Solar for comment.