First Solar Lays Off 165

By Patric Hedlund
NEENACH – FAIRMONT / ANTELOPE VALLEY, CA (Saturday March 26, 2012 at 6 p.m.)—
Amid a swirl of rumors about First Solar, Inc.’s plans regarding Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One (AVSR1), The Mountain Enterprise has confirmed that 140 workers were laid off on Friday, May 25 after 25 were laid off on April 25, for 165 layoffs in a month. Just before New Year’s eve 2011, we reported that 37 workers were sent home with no advance notification.

These numbers come from AVSR1 spokesperson Adam Eventov, who said he was calling this reporter from the parking lot of a barbecue restaurant in Temecula, with his child sleeping in the back seat of the car, "to be sure that we help you get the numbers correct." Other media outlets have reported 120 layoffs.

"My running joke is that they don’t need a communication consultant, they need an exorcist…." Eventov laughed ruefully, referring to the series of events that have plagued the building of the 230 megawatt facility in the western Antelope Valley, on about 2,100 acres near 170th Street West in the area straddling Neenach and Fairmont, adjacent to Highway 138 (also known locally as Avenue D).

Following an initial hold-up by Los Angeles County inspectors over grading standards, the company fell into what is now a 2.5 month dispute with inspectors regarding an alleged stipulation in the conditional use permit (CUP) that they must use Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) certified hardware in L.A. County installations. First Solar’s cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin film modules are not UL certified.

Showing visible irritation with L.A. County inspectors, AVSR1 Project Director Anthony Perrino said in a meeting in early May that utility-scale facilities are not mandated to use UL certified components and that this problem has not come up at any other site in California, other states, Canada or Europe.

The laid-off workers, Eventov confirms, are mainly those provided by the Van Nuys-based labor contractor CLP Resources, Inc. which has been used to hire local employees. That would imply that most of those left on the job are those brought in from a Lancaster electricians’ union and from First Solar’s regular pool of contractors (many based in Arizona) who have worked on several sites around the country.

Addressing who has been laid off, Eventov said: "I don’t have a breakdown, but it will mostly be the people who are structural steel guys being handled by CLP, those hammering the posts into the ground. We still have guys putting in the power transfer station and lots of water trucks. This is a lot of pain for microlocal workers and those throughout the Antelope Valley. This [the dispute with the county] has gone on so long that, on the plus side, when we get this module thing worked out….we will have to put on extra workers to catch up on the construction schedule." The term "microlocal" refers to residents who are neighbors to the plant in Neenach, Fairmont, Three Points and Antelope Acres, plus Lebec and Frazier Park, who are less than 30 miles away.

The facility is also having ongoing problems controlling dust. Some workers have filed a suit regarding labor issues, said former employee Alan Headley of Lancaster and have reported several safety concerns to this reporter, including the lack of protection provided by masks issued to allegedly filter Valley Fever spores blowing in the dust. One source said he had confirmed with a medical researcher that the masks are inadequate, due in part to the small size of the spores and in part to structural shortcomings of the masks which impedes formation of an adequate seal (to workers’ faces).

Meahwhile, neighboring residents have been adamant for months that the technique of using water and a chemical stabilizing additive to create a crust over the graded dirt is not working to control the blowing walls of dust stirred up at the work site that create health hazards and potentially lethal visibility impairment across HIghway 138. Nearly every resident we’ve talked to in the region has provided ample photographic proof of the looming 60-100 foot wall of dust flowing across the valley adjacent to the worksite.

Eventov said he did not have firm updates about First Solar’s mega sites, Desert Sunlight in Riverside County and Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County. He  said, however, that contrary to rumors in the Antelope Valley today, "from what I understand they are still putting sticks in the ground there; I think this problem just affects L.A. County."

When asked about the rumors that First Solar’s lawyers are threatening to sue L.A. County, Eventov said: "At this time we are trying to get this resolved amicably and to get it resolved as soon as possible. I think that could be from somebody projecting something on the situation that is not there."

Again, with a touch of humor, Eventov summarized: "They have kept me with the same line for two and a half months, so I have to alter it a little: "We continue to discuss this issue with the county and hope that this comes to an early resolution…better make that, ‘we hope this comes to a resolution soon…."

First Solar’s stock has dropped from a high of about $140 to about $14 per share in a year. The complex changes in the solar panel market due to aggressive manufacture of polysilicon panels by China and what is being called "dumping" on the world market below cost has played a major factor in undermining the young U.S. solar technology manufacturing industry.

See the next issue of The Mountain Enterprise for additional details.

[Note to our readers: This web story has been adjusted while online between 6-7:15 p.m. Saturday, May 26.]


This is part of the May 25, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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