Buffett Bets Big On Big Solar

Last June, First Solar was riding high on the wave of three conditionally approved loan guarantees under the Department of Energy’s Section 1705 program. But things went downhill fast after that. While First Solar has so far avoided the fate of clean energy loan-guarantee 1705 poster child Solyndra, there’s no denying that 2011 turned out to be a rough year for one of the country’s largest solar manufacturers.

First, the company lost a conditionally approved federal loan guarantee for its Topaz Solar Farm project in San Luis Obispo County, California. Then, in October, with its stock shares at a four-year low, the company surprised everyone by firing CEO Rob Gillette.

2011 cleantech venture capital

image via First Solar

But 2012 is looking a little bit sunnier. First Solar is starting off the year with a new efficiency record and a new friend: Warren Buffett. Des Moines, Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, a subsidiary of Buffett-controlled Berkshire Hathaway, has completed its acquisition of the 550-megawatt (MW) Topaz Solar Farm. The project is currently under construction, and is expected to be completed by early 2015.

That sale comes on top of the earlier sales of two loan-guaranteed-backed projects, Solar Ranch One and Desert Sunlight.

Under the new arrangement with MidAmerican, First Solar will continue to build, maintain and operate the facility. Once completed, the Topaz project will be one of the world’s largest solar farms, and will generate enough electricity to power approximately 160,000 California homes. MidAmerican says that the project will create approximately 400 construction jobs and 15 ongoing operations and maintenance jobs.

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).