First Solar Opens Global Operations Center, SunPower Restructures

First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) opened a global Operations Center today in Mesa, Arizona, from which it will monitor and control its solar projects around the world.

First Solar currently operates 14 solar plants for customers that have 460 megawatts (MW) of peak generating capacity. That will rise to 23 plants with 850 MW of capacity by year-end and 27 plants with 2,200 MW of capacity in 2013.

The company can maintain its network of solar plants remotely, while also being connected to utility and customer networks. The technology employs advanced diagnostics and plant controls to maximize power output and minimize maintenance costs by quickly identifying and fixing problems. It allows some of the world’s largest solar PV plants to integrate seamlessly with the grid, contributing to its stability.

A wide range of real-time power plant data will be monitored and analyzed, such as electrical performance, equipment status and weather data.

First Solar touts its advanced plant controls, which are critical to managing grid reliability and stability. All managed remotely, the company can control how much and how quickly a solar plant’s output increases or decreases to minimize grid disruption. It can enable a plant to operate during grid disturbances as well as provide critical grid support when grid frequency is changing.
These tools are becoming increasingly important as more solar generating capacity is connected to the grid.

"Our years of experience and investment have enabled us to build a proprietary system that allows us to optimize our customers’ power plants to produce the maximum amount of energy and revenue under their power purchase agreements while minimizing costs and risk," says Bob Callery, Vice President. "The vast quantity of data we gather also gives us invaluable insight into the real-word performance of our products and supports the continuous improvement of our power plants."

First Solar in Australia, Indonesia

First Solar supplied the solar panels for Australia’s first utilty-scale solar plant, owned by General Electric and Verve Energy.

Although it’s tiny at 10 megawatts (MW) it could grow to 40 MW over time. Don’t focus on the size, say the companies, see it as a milestone.

"This is less about the size and more about the fact that we now have a utility-scale solar project in Australia," Jack Curtis, First Solar’s Sydney-based vice president of business development told Bloomberg. "The local industry can now look to this project and see they can be developed, that they can be executed. It will provide local operational data that can be used to bring the rest of the industry along."

The company won a government contract to build a 159 MW project on two sites in New South Wales, with Sydney-based AGL Energy, which comes online in 2015.

Australia has just under 2 gigawatts of solar installed – only 19 MW of that is large-scale (over 1 MW per project).

First Solar believes Australia is four years behind the US, where it completed the first 10 MW project back in 2008.

Uncertain government policy has been holding the industry back, and if the new carbon tax doesn’t get derailed, the industry should ramp rapidly to 3-5 gigawatts between 2015-2020.

In its first foray into Indonesia, First Solar signed with PJB Services to collaboratively build a 100 MW of utility-scale projects. There will be several projects, including PV hybrids.

SunPower Restructures

Meanwhile, competitor SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWR) is cutting 900 employees in the Philippines, and temporarily idling half its solar cell production lines and 20% of solar panel production there.

The move is an attempt to reduce inventory, lower costs and improve efficiency during these challenging times for the solar industry.

SunPower says it will reach its goal of producing solar panels for under $0.75 per watt by the end of this year.

The company also took a 42% stake in Australian renewables developer Diamond Energy, which has solar, wind and biogas projects.  SunPower is trying to morf into a "complete solutions provider," diversifying into both solar project development and solar leasing.

As many as 180 solar manufacturers could go out of business or be bought in the next three years, according to GTM Research. Half of those will be in countries that are now too expensive for making solar panels – the US, Europe and Canada.

China will continue to dominate solar manufacturing. "Given where the industry is right now and how committed China is for its solar manufacturing industry, it’s very difficult for the U.S. to compete," Shyam Mehta, the report’s author, told Forbes. "In fact, by the end of 2013, cell and panel manufacturing could disappear all together in the United States."

Indeed, in the wake of US tariffs, and the possibility for the same in Europe, China is bolstering its domestic solar industry. Recently, the government released a notice asking companies to apply to build 500 MW of solar in every province.

The program could lead to 15 GW of projects nationally, hitting the target of its Five-Year Solar Plan.

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