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Summary:

Northern California utility PG&E says it will buy a massive 800 MW of solar energy from farms to be built by OptiSolar and SunPower. The utility’s solar bet is 3.6 times the total amount of solar photovoltaics installed in the U.S. in 2007, and represents a significant step for the U.S solar industry.

Solar industry watchers wondering if OptiSolar‘s gigantic 550 MW photovoltaic solar power plant was, in fact, being built or if it was just a figment of the startup’s enthusiastic imagination can put their fears to rest. The thin-film solar maker said this afternoon that it already has a utility signed up to buy the clean power: PG&E. So, yes folks, this is the real deal. The northern California utility said it has inked an agreement with OptiSolar unit Topaz Solar Farms to purchase electricity from the 550 MW San Luis Obispo County, Calif. farm, once it’s operational, in 2011.

The OptiSolar deal is part of a broader plan from PG&E to purchase 800 MW of solar power that will also see it buy 250 MW from High Plains Ranch II, a subsidiary of SunPower. The PV plant uses SunPower’s high-efficiency solar cells, while OptiSolar’s plant will implement that company’s amorphous silicon thin-film solar material.

OptiSolar’s plant is one of a new wave of thin-film solar farms being built in the U.S., and for now, appears to be the largest. To date the wave had largely been driven by thin-film darling First Solar. First Solar is building a 10 MW solar photovoltaic power plant for power company Sempra Generation near Boulder City, Nev., as well as a 7.5 MW plant (with the potential to scale up to 21 MW) in Blythe, Calif., in a contract with Southern California Edison. And then there’s First Solar’s contract for the first 2 MW installation of a distributed 250 MW rooftop system, again for SoCal Edison.

But OptiSolar has scored big time with this PG&E deal. It validates the company’s claims — and its massive funding. OptiSolar recently raised $77.8 million from investors, on top of a $132 million round raised back in April. Total funding over more than $200 million makes it one of the most well-funded cleantech startups around.

The SunPower folks will also be happy about the deal. Its power plants generally fall into the single to double-digit MW range; the largest listed on its web site is a 23 MW plant in Trujillo, Spain, though the company is also working on a 25-megawatt plant in DeSoto County, Fla., for FPL. This is the first we’ve heard of the High Plains II subsidiary, but it appears the solar maker has a lot of subsidiaries under its wing. The 250 MW plant is also in San Luis Obispo County and will be operational starting in 2010.

These two latest deals photovoltaic solar deals from PG&E are also a sign that PV is starting to make strides as a viable utility solar source. Previously many of the large utility solar deals had been for solar thermal plants.

Photo courtesy of OptiSolar and Copyright 2008 David Lena

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By Katie Fehrenbacher
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