The solar market continues to heat up in Arizona as Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar Inc. announced today that it is locating a new solar module fabrication plant in Mesa, Ariz. The firm, one of ENR Southwest’s Six Companies to Watch in 2011, acquired 135 acres within Mesa Proving Grounds, a massive regional development core owned by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based DMB Associates Inc., to build the $300-million first phase and future expansions of the high tech facility.

Construction is anticipated to begin in the second quarter of 2011, creating up to 500 during the project. First Solar officials estimate that approximately 600 clean-room technology jobs are forecast once the first phase of the plant is operational. 

The facility will include four manufacturing lines with a capacity to produce more than 250 MW of thin-film photovoltaic modules per year, using First Solar’s continuous manufacturing process which the company says transforms a sheet of glass into a complete solar module in less than 2.5 hours. A portion of the plant’s own electricity will fittingly be supplied by a 3-MW, roof-mounted solar installation. The site will also house ground-mounted PV testing areas. 

“Supportive state and federal policies have provided the visibility needed for the U.S. to become our fastest-growing market, and the Mesa factory will enable us to meet that growing demand,” says Bruce Sohn, president of First Solar in a statement. “Programs such as Dept. of Energy loan guarantees and the solar investment tax credit are crucial to helping the renewable energy industry quickly reach the scale needed to compete with fossil fuels.”
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The new factory, in combination with First Solar’s recently expanded facility in Perrysburg, Ohio (above), will increase First Solar’s U.S. production capacity to more than 500MW per year. Photo courtesy First Solar Inc.

A number of locations had been considered around the country before First Solar focused on the Mesa Proving Grounds property, located about 30 minutes from the firm’s Tempe headquarters. Located at the southeast corner of Elliot and Ellsworth roads in Mesa, the site is so named because it was once used by General Motors for testing vehicles in hot weather climates. DMB purchased 3,200 acres in 2006 and has been crafting it as a strategic economic development corridor located near the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus.  

In 2008, DMB announced what was supposed to be the Proving Grounds’ first project: a partnership with Nashville, Tenn.-based Gaylord Entertainment to develop 100 acres of the Proving Grounds into a destination resort, convention center and 18-hole golf course. The high-end resort won the approval of Mesa voters in 2009, but the project has been delayed at least a few yeard due to the economic downturn and other factors. 

First Solar currently has several projects in development and construction. Its largest, the $967-million Agua Caliente Solar Facility near Yuma providing 290 MW of power, topped ENR Southwest’s Top 25 Starts of 2010 in this month’s edition. First Solar is also partnering with Arizona Public Service, Phoenix’s largest utility, to build the 17-MW Paloma Solar Plant near Gila Bend, which is expected to come online in September. To be built on the site of a former alfalfa farm, the facility will use 300,000 thin-film photovoltaic panels mounted on fixed-tilt steel frames.

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The new First Solar plant in Mesa is expected to create 600 technology jobs once operation of the first phase begins in 2012. Photo courtesy First Solar Inc.

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