There’s a lot of work to be done–years of work–but construction is under way in California on what its builders say will be the largest solar power plant in the world.

MidAmerican Solar and First Solar this month held a groundbreaking celebration at the site of Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. The 550-megawatt (MW) photovoltaic plant is expected to take three years to build. The companies said the construction project will employ 400 workers and generate around $417 million in local economic activity, and when its done will provide enough energy to power some 160,000 average California homes.

Topaz test arrays
Image via First Solar

No doubt Topaz will be big, but will it actually be the biggest PV plant in the world, as the companies claim? Perhaps not. The Indian state of Gujarat announced late last month the completion of a mammoth installation that apparently checks in at 214 MW. That Indian project was completed in less than two years, during which the Topaz development has traveled quite the rocky road.

Last June, then-owner First Solar was riding high on the wave of three conditionally approved loan guarantees under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Section 1705 program. But things went downhill fast after that. Under financial pressure, the company was forced to sell two of the three projects, Solar Ranch One and Desert Sunlight. Then it lost the loan guarantee for the Topaz project (meanwhile, in October, with its stock shares at a four-year low, the company surprised everyone by firing CEO Rob Gillette).

Topaz looked to be on the rocks, but then Warren Buffett swooped in to save the day. His MidAmerican Energy Holdings — parent of MidAmerican Solar — acquired Topaz in a deal that kept First Solar in the picture as the firm that will construct, operate and maintain Topaz.

“The Topaz project will benefit the environment and the local economy,” Paul Caudill, president of MidAmerican Solar, said in announcing the groundbreaking. “A project of this size creates jobs and plays a major role in our nation’s long-term electric energy supply. We are excited to be part of the San Louis Obispo community, and we look forward to having a major presence with stakeholders now and in the future.”

The Topaz project will incorporate First Solar’s advanced thin-film PV modules that generate electricity with no emissions, waste or water use, the company said. The project will generate enough electricity when complete to displace 377,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of removing 73,000 cars off the road. Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) will purchase the electricity under a 25-year power purchase agreement, and it will contribute to California’s mandate to generate 33 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

Groundbreaking at Topaz Solar Farms
image via MidAmerican Solar

Workers are currently installing thousands of poles resembling the poles that support highway guard rails.  On top of each post is a bracket that will uphold the solar panel. Installation of the panels is expected to start later in May.

On the same day it announced the Topaz groundbreaking First Solar also announced its financial results for the first quarter of 2012. The company lost $449 million in the first quarter of 2012, due to  it recent restructuring that will eliminate 30 percent of its workforce and close a plant in Germany. First Solar also announced last month that it chief commercial officer, James Hughes, would become CEO replacing interim chief and company founder, Jim Ahearn.

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