First Solar, Inc. in Business Turmoil as Building Hitches Hit Neenach, Fairmont Area

  • An estimated 300 people showed up at a park in Quartz Hill on Saturday, July 30 to apply for construction jobs with First Solar, Inc. The company hopes to begin construction this month. The building must be underway by September 30 in order to qualify for about $680 million in federal loan guarantees for their project in West Antelope Valley.

    An estimated 300 people showed up at a park in Quartz Hill on Saturday, July 30 to apply for construction jobs with First Solar, Inc. The company hopes to begin construction this month. The building must be underway by September 30 in order to qualify for about $680 million in federal loan guarantees for their project in West Antelope Valley.

By Patric Hedlund
Neenach, Fairmont, Carrizo Plains, CA (Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011 at 2 p.m.)— New York financial services and NPR are reporting this morning about upsets at First Solar, Inc. (FSLR on the New York Stock Exchange), the behemoth company that has begun building multiple utility-scale solar farm facilities adjacent to the Mountain Communities.They are said to be building two projects in the Western Antelope Valley area of Neenach/Fairmont near 170th Street West and another in the Carrizo Plains area west of Pine Mountain.

Although rich in cash—if its economic filings are to be believed—and the largest U.S. solar company (with $5.5 billion in U.S. government loan guarantees), the company fired its Chief Executive Officer Rob Gillette last week "and cut its 2011 earnings forecast" according to Bloomberg Financial reports. A conference call to investors was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. today in New York.

Behind the scenes, the cause of the shake-up in this domestic solar leader’s economic forecasts is related to what caused the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the Obama Administration’s solar poster child. The problem can be summarized with one word: China.

Massive Chinese investment in solar facilities have managed to cut the raw material costs for producing traditional polysilicon-based solar panels from $400 to $40 per kilogram. That has shifted the premise for First Solar’s competitive cost strategy using an alternate technology.

Meanwhile, Fairmont Town Council President David Kerr has been sending open letters to First Solar, Inc. personnel about what he says appear to be the company’s failures to comply with their agreements under their county bulding permits regarding safety measures, road access and other concerns. He said the Oso Town Council representatives share these concerns and that First Solar personnel are not responding honestly or in a timely manner to community questions about hazards to public safety.

More will be reported in next week’s issue of The Mountain Enterprise.

Below this story is an archive that is being compiled of reporting about the renewable energy developers seeking permits to build wind turbine and solar farms in the Western Antelope Valley. Compiling the archive is a work in progress. —PH

Looking Back:

First Solar to Begin Building in West Antelope Valley as 300 Attend July 30 Job Fair

Frazier Park, Antelope Valley [August 1, 2011 at 5 a.m.}—A Community Relations Coordinator for First Solar, Inc. informed The Mountain Enterprise this weekend that building is about to commence at their Antelope Valley First Solar Ranch One (AVSR One) site in West Antelope Valley. Alex Martin wrote: "…we have received our final discretionary permits which allow us to mobilize for construction. Mobilization primarily consists of bringing temporary facilities and infrastructure onto the site (temporary construction offices and utilities) to support the start of construction. With this permitting approval, we are released to begin mobilization at any time. We expect to commence construction activities within a month."

On Saturday, July 30 about 300 people attended a job fair in Quartz Hill at a public park. An orientation was provided about AVSR One and applications were distributed. Our reporter spoke with residents from the Mountain Communities through the Antelope Valley and into Lancaster who were there to apply. Watch this week’s print issue of The Mountain Enterprise for more details.

Also, the Oso Town Council is to meet on Monday, Aug. 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the Holiday Valley Clubhouse (25315 Ideal Avenue) where discussion of a regional Energy Co-op will be held, along with questions about merging rural town councils for a more unified voice in negotiating with energy developers coming into the area. Affidavits will also be solicited from property owners who have been approached by Los Angeles County’s ‘N.A.T.’ (Nuisance Abatement Team), popularly referred to as ‘the NATZIs.’ See agenda and directions at right side of this page, under Community FYI.

Earlier in this series:

2011-08-05  300 Line up for Job Fair

2011-11-11 Big Market Shifts for First Solar as Energy Farms Start Building

2011-07-08 Sabers Rattle as Fairmont Chides First Solar for ‘Bullying’

2011-06-24 Fairmont Town Council’s Solar Merry-Go-Round Ride

2011-06-24 Update: Fairmont Town Council Asks for Emergency Planning Meeting on First Solar Intentions

2011-05-06 Where the Trees Grow Sideways and the Sun Burns Bright

2011-04-29 ‘Where the Trees Grow Sideways and the Sun Burns Bright’

2011-04-08 150 Hear about NextEra Wind Farm at The Lakes Town Council

2011-04-01 Fairmont Council Votes To Settle with NRG Solar

2011-03-25 Fairmont Town Council Makes Progress on NRG Appeal

l2011-03-11 Oso Town Council Is Revived as Wind and Solar Farms Arrive

2011-02-11 Neenach-Fairmont Area Meet Energy Developers–Part Three

2011-02-04 Neenach-Fairmont Meet With Energy Developers-Part Two

2011-01-28 Neenach-Fairmont Meet With Energy Developers

2011-01-21 Energy Groups Rushing into Neenach Area

2011-01-14 Breaking News: Solar Companies Seek Thursday Meeting in Neenach

2011-01-07 Neenach Area Files Two Appeals to L.A. County Solar Farm Permit :

2010-12-31 Breaking News: Neenach Area Residents Appeal Permit for 800-Acre Solar Farm

Sabers Rattle as Fairmont Chides First Solar for ‘Bullying’
(From the July 8, 2011 issue of The Mountain Enterprise)

By Patric Hedlund

It’s hard to say what a bad week might feel like for an $11 billion corporation named by Forbes Magazine as the fastest growing technology company in America two years in a row, but First Solar Inc.’s unpleasant encounter with the Fairmont Town Council in Western Antelope Valley this week caught the eye of some Wall Street investors. The company, known as FSLR on the NASDAQ, is seeking to place a 2,100 acre, 230 megawatt system, the largest in California, in the Fairmont area.

With loan guarantees and grants, there is about $215 million in federal incentive benefit to FSLR if it can commence construction at this site before September 30, one Wall Street analyst who contacted The Mountain Enterprise estimated. [Subsequent analysis by The Mountain Enterprise leads us to believe that the DOE loan guarantee is closer to $680 million, for this site alone. On June 30 the company issued a press release claiming that they had received provisional clearance for $4.5 billion in DOE loan guarantees for a portfolio of solar farm facilities in California and Arizona.—PH]

FSLR received a certification of its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One project in November 2010, shortly after the Fairmont Town Council was formed.

FSLR hopes to break ground by July 5, development manager Jack Pigott told about 45 Fairmont residents June 27. The group gathered at the WeeVill Market, one of the few public structures along a flat stretch of Highway 138, about 15 miles west of Lancaster.

After hearing a presentation by Pigott and Roy Skinner, First Solar permits specialist, Fairmont Town Council members and residents asked pointed questions about the transformations that will take place in their valley from the cumulative impact of 33 utility-scale renewable energy installations slated to be built in their area.

Their primary grievance, according to council president David Kerr, is the lack of consultation with the neighbors who will be most immediately affected by the facility.

Council President David Kerr said that First Solar had not notified its immediate neighbors to give them an opportunity to be part of the EIR hearing process. First Solar representatives said that L.A. County had notified neighbors in mailings. Residents ridiculed the reply, saying that rural mail addressed to street boxes is often not delivered nor received, and that none of them had received notification. Only one resident, Pat Chiodo, said he had been to an EIR hearing at Antelope Acres Town Council, about 15 miles from the Fairmont area.

Residents said it appears that L.A. County employees in Supervisor Antonovich’s office or in downtown L.A. had misinformed the solar company regarding who represents the 2,000 residents who live where the company hopes to build AV Solar Ranch One.

“We are the ones who will be paying for this project and the other ones that want to build here, with the change to our way of life,” Kerr said.

The council voted to send a letter seeking an urgent emergency meeting with the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning.

The letter, signed by residents as well as the council, speaks of "glaring insufficiencies" in the design and construction plans for AV Solar Ranch One.

Specific complaint was made about what was characterized as the failure of the company to make "meaningful" contact with residents. It also said the proposed project is inconsistent with the "principles and values stated in the [L.A. County] Antelope Valley Area Plan."

In strong words, the letter said that architects of the project are obliged to make a "collaborative effort" with community members, but that they had not. The council’s letter calls AV Solar Ranch One "a bullying, unwanted neighbor whose pursuit of profits apparently has blinded it to any concepts of area cooperation," then asks for an immediate review of the project "prior to commencement of construction."

Pigott said many of the concerns mentioned by residents had already been addressed in the EIR, and reminded the group that the project had already been approved by downtown L.A. He said that the Fairmont Town Council should become familiar with the EIR mitigation components before submitting the letter.

Cumulative impact issues were raised throughout the meeting. Many spoke of the 7-foot chain link fences topped with barbed wire throughout the valley around 33 projects that will turn the valley’s open landscape into a penitentiary environment.

One father said “I want to see a landscape plan to hide that fence all around the whole project. It is like living next to a correctional institution. I am for solar, but you need to come in and handle the concerns of the community. We’re no different from Napa, Sonoma and communities up north, [that have] nice pine trees [to screen solar farms]. The idea of using Joshua trees won’t work. We don’t want to look at that—and most of them die. My kids will get stuck looking at a chainlink fence desert.”

Pigott dismissed their anxiety, saying the setbacks and landscaping along paved roads for his project would be adequate. He repeated that the company adhered to the requests of L.A. County Planning Department personnel. Rural residents scoffed at the "ignorance" of urban planners regarding the needs of the rural community.

The town council voted to table “for the moment” a motion to file a restraining order that could delay the beginning of AV Solar Ranch One construction.

The next day, on Tuesday, June 28, Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit introduced a motion regarding a two percent franchise fee on another large First Solar installation planned to be built in Riverside County. According to Benoit’s press coordinator, the motion has been sent for further study by county staff. The two percent fee could total $3.5 million a year in revenues to the county, it was estimated it could mean nearly $100 million over the life of the project.

When Benoit’s proposal was mentioned at the Fairmont meeting, Pigott laughed. "We will never pay that," he said.

First Solar’s stock closed on Wednesday, June 29 at $129.42. Recent news of popular desire in Germany to close down its nuclear power plants due to safety concerns make First Solar’s thin film photovoltaic offerings hotter than ever. The company already has large solar energy installations in Germany. The day after Fairmont Town Council submitted its letter, FSLR stock rose $4.81 per share.

This is part of the December 30, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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