Global Processing

Chinese solar plant expected to be the biggest

September 8, 2009
According to the Associated Press, First Solar Inc. has received initial approval from the Chinese government to build what may become the largest solar field in the world. First Solar, which makes more solar cells than any other company, said it struck a tentative 10-year deal to build in China''s vast desert north of the Great Wall. The project would eventually blanket 25 square miles of Inner Mongolia — slightly larger than the size of Manhattan — with a sea of black, light-absorbing glass. The solar field would dwarf anything in operation in the U.S. or Europe. At 2 gigawatts, or 2 billion watts, the solar plant could pump as much energy onto China''s grid as two coal-fired plants, enough to light up three million homes. Like most solar plants, however, it wouldn''t produce electricity at night. China has designated a region within the country for renewable energy production and transmission. It also has promised to guide First Solar through the approval process and make it profitable. Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar announced the deal after signing a "memorandum of understanding" with Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People''s Congress. The agreement outlines broad aspects of the project, including deadlines for a feasibility study and the government''s role in helping with construction permits. A system like this would cost $5 billion to $6 billion if it were built in the U.S., though it likely would be cheaper using lower-cost Chinese labor. First Solar plans to make money by selling the plant to a local operator, but it won''t be able to estimate its profit until China determines the size of its subsidy for solar energy. The country is expected to offer a "feed-in tariff," which would require utilities to buy solar energy at a fixed price for a set number of years. For several years, solar panels have been rapidly spreading around the world as an alternative power source, appearing on rooftops of homes and businesses in most major countries. The solar industry has focused on a handful of European countries that offer the best incentives, but companies are starting to look elsewhere for longer-term projects that can keep their factories occupied for several years. Like the U.S., China has taken aggressive steps to move away from fossil fuels. It located the First Solar plant in Ordos, a gritty industrial city of 1.4 million people that is the main production base for China''s largest coal company. The project hasn''t been given an exact location yet, but the agreement said it will be located within a massive development zone that is expected to eventually offer nearly 12 gigawatts of renewable energy from wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power. First Solar will provide most of the solar, with the first 30 megawatts installed by June 1, 2010. The company will expand the plant over the next decade, installing about 27 million thin-film panels by 2019.