By Sam Houghteling, Apollo News Service
On Dec. 21, 2009, the largest thin-film solar photovoltaic (PV) power plant in the United States began its commercial operations in little-known Blythe, Calif. The new facility – located roughly 200 miles southeast of Los Angeles in Riverside County – was developed by Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar, Inc. and purchased by NRG Solar, a subsidiary of NRG Energy, Inc. The Blythe facility will help California meet its goal of generating 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. NRG has a 20-year power purchase agreement with the local electric utility, Southern California Edison (SCE), which guarantees that SCE will purchase all of the energy produced by this independently operated facility. According to Marc Ulrich, SCE Vice President of Renewables and Alternative Power, “Solar is the great untapped resource in California.” Southern California Edison estimates that the 21-megawatt (MW) plant will power nearly 17,000 homes.
While California continues to struggle with rising unemployment, the construction of the Blythe facility was a boon for local workers, employing 296 union members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 440 over the course of three months. This included 109 journeyman electricians, 129 registered apprentices, and 58 electrician trainees. According to Roger Roper, president of IBEW Local 440, the average base pay for union electricians is $35.50 per hour plus $14.00 per hour in benefits, with an additional $10.00 per hour in subsistence pay due to the remote location. Older and more experienced workers make considerably more. Project developers collaborated with the Workforce Development Board to hire local residents seeking work, which resulted in the hiring of 23 local electrical workers, including 16 from the city of Blythe itself. Furthermore, collaboration with “Helmets to Hardhats,” an organization that helps transition military veterans into the civilian workforce, put more than two-dozen electricians with military backgrounds into apprenticeships during the construction of the Blythe facility.
Currently, the only PV solar plant in the United States larger than Blythe is the Desoto Next Generation Solar Center in Arcadia, Florida, with production capabilities of 25 MW. However, the Blythe Solar Plant uses thin-film PV panels made of cadmium telluride, which have significantly lower manufacturing costs than traditional silicon PV panels. Though thin-film PV panels require a larger surface area to generate a comparable amount of electricity, they are more flexible, lighter, durable, and have a slower degradation rate than silicon-based solar panels.
While large-scale solar projects like the Blythe Solar Plant create some U.S. manufacturing jobs, more than 90 percent of worldwide PV solar panel production occurs outside the United States, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association. America can reverse this disturbing trend and create high-quality manufacturing jobs here at home by increasing investment in the domestic manufacture of renewable energy systems and components through legislation such as U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown’s Investments for Manufacturing Progress and Clean Technologies (IMPACT) Act, which would provide domestic manufacturers with the capital they need to retool to meet increased clean energy demand.
In a press statement about the Blythe project, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said: “It is no surprise that America’s largest thin-film solar project was built right here in California, where my Administration has successfully created a climate where green businesses can thrive. It is forward-thinking businesses such as First Solar that will help California reach its nation-leading greenhouse gas reduction and Renewable Portfolio Standard goals, as well as create the new green jobs that will help spur our economic recovery.”
The rapid job creation that occurred at the Blythe facility bodes well for future solar projects. In August 2009, First Solar and Southern California Edison announced plans for two more large-scale PV plants in Desert Center and San Bernardino County. Together, these two plants will have production capabilities of 550 MW. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2012 and 2013, respectively, with a projected completion date of 2015. According to First Solar and NRG, these plants will power 170,000 California homes, produce 1.2 billion kilowatt hours of clean energy annually, and will create thousands of local jobs.
With more renewable energy projects on the way, the commencement of operations in Blythe represents an important transformation occurring in the California energy sector, and a symbol of the bright and renewable future ahead.