US solar giant First Solar has announced that its US$1.8 billion Agua Caliente solar project — the largest operating PV plant in the world — has had 250MW of peak generating capacity connected to the grid. The project, which is currently under construction in Yuma Country, Arizona, US, will have a generating capacity of 290MW when completed in 2014.

Construction began in autumn 2010 whilst installation of the PV modules started in June 2011. First Solar is a pioneer in large-scale PV projects and is at the forefront of technological development, and this project is no different for them. The Agua Caliente project incorporates First Solar’s advanced thin-film PV modules as well as its latest advances in system layout and design, optimized balance-of-system components, and integrated work-flow engineering.

According to Cody Sommer who heads Syntech, a company which has worked closely with First Solar since 2008 on almost all First Solar projects in North America including the Agua Caliente project, First Solar’s adoption of “innovative practices” enabled it to execute its rapid construction schedule. Sommer also noted First Solar’s pioneering ways and highlighted that each PV project is different and requires close attention to strategies and technological processes. Sommer adds, “If you think that if you’ve built one solar plant, you’ve built them all, that’s just not the case; there’s something crazy with all of them.”

As a result of the efficient processes in place, the Agua Caliente project was able to begin commercial operation just seven months after the start of the PV module installation in January 2012 when it connected 30MW of generating capacity. Moreover, it connected more than 100MW of generating capacity and 200MW this summer. 

"The Agua Caliente project exemplifies how utility-grade solar PV power can be rapidly deployed in a phased approach and seamlessly integrated into the electrical grid," said Jim Tyler, vice president of development engineering in First Solar's Engineering, Procurement and Construction Group. "We are extremely proud to set a new benchmark for the industry with Agua Caliente, which incorporates the knowledge gained over years of experience designing, building and operating utility-scale solar projects for leading utilities and energy providers."

The project has successfully met all of its contractual milestones to date and exceeded targets for the speed, quality and safety of the construction processes. However, on August 30, the company announced that it had to halt installation of the PV modules as it was too far ahead of schedule.This move led to a steep fall in First Solar’s shares. According to Bloomberg, at the close of the day of the announcement, First Solar’s shares had fallen by 19% to US$19.67 per share.

Despite this negative backdrop, First Solar is expected to recover. It is in a fortunate position of being the only PV manufacturer in the world that is making a profit. Moreover, it has no long-term debt issues. 

First Solar will operate and maintain the Agua Caliente PV plant for the owners NRG Energy and MidAmerican Solar. Pacific Gas and Electric Company has a 25-year power purchase agreement for the project's electrical output.