First Solar Buys Ausra Solar Project; PG&E Power Purchase Deal Is Off

carrizo_01Updated with additional comments from Ausra and First Solar: Ausra, the solar thermal startup backed by Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures, said today it is selling its Carrizo Energy Solar Farm project, a proposed 177MW project still under development, to industry giant First Solar (s FSLR). Sale of the project, which is in San Luis Obispo, Calif., represents part of a major strategy shift Ausra announced earlier this year to focus on supplying equipment and technology, rather than developing massive solar plants.

Ausra secured a power purchasing agreement with California utility PG&E (s PCG) two years ago to sell 177MW of solar power from the planned Carrizo plant (it was expected to come online at partial capacity in 2010), but according to a release from Ausra, that deal is now “withdrawn.” Today’s announcement comes just over seven months after First Solar acquired the crown jewels — the whole project pipeline, including the massive 550MW Topaz Solar Farms planned for agricultural land in San Luis Obispo — of OptiSolar, another startup with a PG&E deal.

For First Solar, the Carrizo project could help smooth the way for Topaz to move forward. Kathryn Arbeit, development director for the Topaz project, said Carrizo will allow First Solar to present a revised layout to San Luis Obispo County for the Topaz development that may appease concerns about farmland conservation and wildlife in the area.

Ausra’s deal with First Solar also reinforces part of why the utility wants to take ownership of solar power plants. At the beginning of this year, more than 1.5GW of the solar power PG&E had agreed to buy ahead of a state deadline to clean up its portfolio lay in the hands of three startups, all getting hammered by the economic downturn. Now two of those startups have sold off projects to First Solar, and one power purchasing agreement has been withdrawn.

A spokesperson for Ausra told us today that while the deal is off between Ausra and PG&E, the power purchasing arrangement is not necessarily over for Carrizo. Since the project is now owned by First Solar, Ausra declined to comment on whether the contract would have to be renegotiated (see update below), or what stage of development the project has reached. We’ve contacted First Solar and will update when we have more details.

Update: Ausra tells us, “With this sale of Carrizo, the 177MW PPA Ausra had with PG&E was withdrawn. So, there’s no renegotiation to be had.”

Update: According to First Solar spokesperson Alan Bernheimer, the company plans to “go forward with the 550MW Topaz project that has its own PPA with PG&E,” using the land options acquired in the Ausra deal to offer an alternative layout to San Luis Obispo County’s permitting agency. “We can offer an alternative, for instance, that minimizes use of Williamson Act land (conserved farmland) and provides for wildlife movement corridors through the project,” Bernheimer told us in an email. “It enables us to respond to concerns we’ve heard, and allows the county to manage a unified plan for large-scale solar development in the region.”

Carrizo project photo courtesy of the California Energy Commission