First Solar picks Mesa for big plant
by Gary Nelson on Mar. 17, 2011, under Arizona Republic News
A leading solar-power company has decided to build a large factory in the Valley, a significant step in Arizona’s efforts to be part of the growing solar-energy industry. The decision also will create much-needed jobs.
Tempe-based First Solar Inc., one of the world’s top solar-panel makers, announced Thursday that it plans to begin work within weeks on a $300 million, 600-employee factory on the former site of the General Motors Desert Proving Ground in Mesa.
When the manufacturing plant begins production about a year from now, First Solar anticipates its output of photovoltaic panels will have an annual total generating capacity of more than 250 million watts of electricity. That’s enough to power about 86,200 homes.
About 400 to 500 people will be employed during construction of the plant, which will rely on solar power for electricity.
First Solar’s Mesa plant, only its second manufacturing facility in the United States, is the latest phase of the fast-growing company’s expansion plans as it positions itself for what it sees as an inevitable global shift to using more alternative energy.
“Solar power still makes up only a tiny fraction of the world’s energy,” company CEO Robert Gillette said during the announcement at company headquarters. “Our goal is to compete with fossil-fuel power on a sustainable basis.”
First Solar is buying 135 acres from Scottsdale-based DMB Associates and has an option on an additional 100 acres. That’s enough room, Mesa City Manager Chris Brady said, to add more assembly lines that could create up to 4,800 jobs in the future.
Bill Jabjiniak, Mesa’s economic development director, said the plant will pay an average wage of $48,000 for a range of positions including assembly work and engineering professions.
The factory’s panels, which transform sunlight into electricity, will be produced primarily for power plants.
Company President Bruce Sohn said in addition to on-site jobs, the plant will generate “a sizable multiplier of supply-chain and service jobs” in the state.
Competition for the plant was fierce across several states, Sohn said, but the company chose Mesa because of its proximity to burgeoning solar-power markets in the Southwest and because state, county and local officials worked closely with his company and DMB to pull the deal together.
First Solar is building a 17-megawatt solar power plant in Gila Bend for Arizona Public Service Co. and erecting a massive solar array in Yuma.
The announcement comes as the world anxiously watches the frantic attempts to prevent catastrophe at a crippled Japanese nuclear power plant, raising inevitable questions about the safety of nuclear power.
“The terrible events that happened in Japan have just heightened the awareness, I think, of alternatives but also the debate around nuclear power,” Gillette said. “Solar obviously is an alternative to power generation. It’s not a replacement, but it certainly is something we think will grow over time and be a much more significant contributor to power generation.”
First Solar’s Mesa plant will be the first step in redeveloping the GM site, which was the automaker’s premier test facility for more than half a century before closing in 2009.
DMB bought the northern 5 square miles of the GM land in 2006 and began talking about how, over the next couple of generations, it had potential to become a large residential and industrial area around Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
Mesa and DMB worked together on an innovative zoning plan for the property, stressing environmental sustainability in transitioning from a semirural environment.
Karrin Taylor, a DMB vice president, said First Solar meshes perfectly with those plans.
First Solar’s campus will almost certainly spur other development on DMB’s land, which is expected to include homes, retail centers and, eventually, dense urban cores.
Scott Somers, who represents southeast Mesa on the City Council, said First Solar’s announcement is evidence that the city’s long-term Gateway area strategy is beginning to bear fruit. “This is the Mesa Gateway plan,” Somers said. “This is all that hard work starting to pay off.”
Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman said, “This is going to be great for Tempe as well as Mesa. It’s going to be great for all of us.”
He said solar energy is a natural way to expand Arizona’s economic base, which has been ravaged over the past decade by two recessions and an epic housing-market collapse.
First Solar officials said they considered the region’s talent pool when making their decision, even though new employees will need special training. First Solar also praised state and federal policies for promoting clean energy in general and this deal in particular.
During Thursday’s announcement, Gov. Jan Brewer said First Solar’s decision validates the viability of her new Arizona Commerce Authority and her other economic-development policies.
“First Solar could have located anywhere,” she said. “We are serious about making Arizona the solar capital of the world.”
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who participated in the announcement, said economic policies and even business tax incentives are fine, but landing big projects depends on an educated workforce and the viability of Arizona’s cities.
“As we go through the debates down at the state Capitol, I hope that we understand that on the front-end policies, tax reductions, things (like that) get people in the door,” Smith said.
“To ensure long-term success, we cannot pull the rug out from under our educational institutions, our cities,” he said.
“If . . . we cannot provide the type of educated workforce, all the tax policy in the world will not create a winning solution,” Smith added in his latest swipe at lawmakers’ budget policies.