First Solar, the Tempe-based company that has been powering its way upward in the solar-energy industry, is getting into the utility business.
The company received approval Thursday from California regulators to supply electricity to Southern California Edison from a utility-scale photovoltaic power plant that it plans to build near Blythe, Calif.
The plant will incorporate the company's thin-film solar technology, which First Solar officials say can convert sunlight into electric current at a lower cost than other photovoltaic technologies.
"This is part of our strategy to assist in the development of the California power market," said Mike Gonzalez, First Solar's director of corporate affairs. "It is the largest in the U.S. It is the largest state in population."
The first phase of the Blythe plant will have a capacity of 7.5 megawatts, which is enough electricity to supply about 3,000 homes. It is scheduled to be operational in 2009, and will be expanded to 21 megawatts in 2010, Gonzalez said.
No information was available on the cost of the 120-acre plant.
First Solar has been building its thin-film modules primarily for solar power plants in foreign countries, especially Germany, where solar benefits from extensive subsidies.
In the United States, the company has supplied thin-film modules for Tucson Electric Power's solar generating station in Springerville.
In all of those projects, First Solar supplied its technology to builders of solar power plants. The Blythe project is the first in which First Solar will develop a generating plant itself.
The plant is unusual in using photovoltaics to create electricity, a technology that is more commonly used on individual homes and buildings. Most large utility-scale solar plants, including the Solana Generating Station planned by Arizona Public Service near Gila Bend, are using solar-thermal technology in which the sun's energy is used to heat liquids, which produce steam to drive electric turbines. But First Solar officials say their technology, which avoids the use of expensive silicon, is competitive in cost with solar-thermal.
The California Public Utilities Commission said the price of electricity produced at the plant will be "reasonable."