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First Solar and Sempra plan thin-film solar plant

The 10-megawatt solar farm being built in Nevada would be the largest thin-film installation in North America.

First Solar is teaming up with Sempra Generation to build in the Nevada desert what could become North America's largest thin-film photovoltaic plant. The 10-megawatt project would be located 40 miles southeast of Las Vegas, next to Sempra's natural gas plant in El Dorado.

"As a result, the impact to the immediate environment is minimal and the project completion timeline will be shorter," Mike Ahearn, CEO of First Solar, said in a statement.

Sempra will develop, own, and operate the plant, which First Solar will maintain and monitor. Construction began in July and is set to finish in the fourth quarter.

"We look forward to helping the region's utilities meet state requirements calling for them to include solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources in their power portfolios," Michael Allman, president and chief executive of Sempra Generation, said in a statement. The San Diego, Calif., company is a division of Sempra Energy.

First Solar uses cadmium telluride rather than silicon, which has been costlier and in short supply. Rival thin-film companies such as Global Solar use copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS, to make solar cells.

First Solar said it installed 300 megawatts of modules in 2007 with thin-film photovoltaics that maximize available sunlight even in cloudy weather. The company was commissioned to provide systems for a 40-megawatt plant in Germany by 2009.

Its utility-scale U.S. installations include a 2-megawatt rooftop solar system in Fontana, Calif., for Southern California Edison. The project, announced on July 16, would be that utility's first system toward its goal of providing 250 solar megawatts on commercial buildings over the next five years.

The partners also aim to build, under a 20-year power purchase agreement through the California Public Utilities Commission, what could become the state's largest ground-based photovoltaic plant.

Other big-scale solar power plants planned for southwestern desert regions use a different mix of technologies, such as light-concentrating or solar thermal systems, as well as panels that pivot to face the shifting sun.

First Solar of Tempe, Ariz., whose soaring stock prices have earned it the reputation as the "Google of solar," has projected $1 billion in sales and the shipment of 460 megawatts of equipment for 2008. Its stock was trading at $263 per share at press time.

The company claims its plants produce no emissions and that it's the first company of its kind both to fully recycle materials used in manufacturing and to use mining byproducts in its semiconductors.