Team Solar’s loan guarantee bonanza: Catching one’s breath after dizzying week of DOE announcements

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Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney, former senior editor of PV-Tech and Photovoltaics International, is now chief curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs’ solar practice.

Four days, five announcements, and more than $2.66 billion later, it’s time to catch one’s breath and reflect on the recent flurry of US Department of Energy conditional loan guarantee awards. As the program approaches its sell-by date of Sept. 30, with the future of the amply-distributed Section 1703 plan in doubt, the latest winners have one thing in common—they all play for Team Solar.

The news that 1366 Technologies has been tapped for a $150 million commitment makes it the fifth company or project group to be touted by DOE this week. The next-gen solar wafering firm joins fellow new-age silicon purveyor Calisolar ($275 million) on the manufacturing side, while a threesome of projects, one using PV west of Phoenix—Mesquite ($359.1 million)—and two deploying concentrated solar thermal schemes in the Southern California desert—Mojave ($1.2 billion) and Genesis ($681.6 million, and a favorite of Star Trek fans)—round out the field. 

The pair of silicon companies say that the factories they plan to build with the loan guarantees having their financial backs—Calisolar in an old GM stamping plant in north-central Ohio, and 1366 first in Massachusetts and then in an as-yet-to-be selected US site— would eventually account for as much of 3GW of additional PV materials capacity. (In Calisolar’s case, that gigawatt-equivalent figure represents the 16,000MT of upgraded metallurgical silicon that it expects to ramp in three phases.)

As for the project trio, the CSP couple would account for 250MW each of installed generating capacity from the parabolic-trough technology siblings, while Sempra Generation’s Mesquite site would feature 150MW of Suntech c-Si panels. That’s 650MW collectively, and all of that sun-kissed voltage—said to be enough to power 132,000 homes—will be sold to Pacific Gas & Electric.

Jobs, a somewhat important metric these days, will be supposedly created by the thousands, especially on the construction side.

The three power plant projects will provide 1930 hard-hat gigs and around 125 permanent positions. The Calisolar factory gets top honors for total jobs in play, with 1000 needed to build out the facility and nearly 1100 required to run the joint when all three phases are completed. The numbers for 1366 (get it, numbers, 1366…) are more modest to begin with, at 50 on the construction side and 70 permanent operational slots, but when the company pulls the trigger on its second production site the numbers will climb severalfold.

The DOE program has awarded about $12 billion to 16 different solar projects and manufacturing concerns, but the allocation is dwindling for future conditional loan guarantees. Which companies might be likely to grab one of the few remaining awards? The first firm that comes to mind is one that already has a couple of LGs in its pocket—First Solar.

The thin-film PV module/EPC outfit is still very much in the running for its AV Solar Ranch One, Topaz Solar, and Desert Sunlight projects, representing potential installed generation capacity of over a gigawatt.  AV has its permits in order, Desert Sunlight should get a record of decision from the US Bureau of Land Management within the next month, and Topaz’s conditional use permit was approved by the San Luis Obispo board of supervisors last month (although the decision has been appealed, the expectation is that the permit will go forward, since the Supes voted unanimously in favor of it.)

DOE may be very close to making up its mind about these First Solar projects, since June 16 was the date for the agency to determine “that [they] will need to be reviewed and recommended for a conditional commitment by [its] Credit Review Board” for the projects to have “a reasonable prospect of closing by the statutorily imposed deadline [Sept. 30],” according to correspondence sent out by the department’s loan office last month.

The Energy Department program has its fans and critics—and a vast majority likely somewhere in-between—and with the latest announcements, this past week’s hoopla-meter reading went off the charts. However, another piece of news puts the loan guarantee plan into a more global perspective.

A consortium of Chinese companies—CTDC, Goldpoly, and TBEA SunOasis—have joined forces to develop PV power plants in Europe. They plan to partner with Euro EPC contractors and project developers to get the ball rolling. Backing their EU play is China Development Bank and China Merchants Bank, to the tune of $10 billion in credit facilities.

It’s another reminder of how large the stakes have become in the solar game, and how a billion dollars may look huge from one vantage point, but is seen as the cost of doing business (times ten) from those with their eyes (many of which are Chinese) on the terawatt future.

 

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