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Published: Wednesday, 9/9/2009

Toledo-born plant gets OK to erect solar field in China

FROM BLADE STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES

First Solar Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of thin-film solar modules, said Tuesday it has received initial approval from the Chinese government to build what may become the largest solar field in the world.

Toledo-born First Solar, which has its only North America solar-panel plant in Perrysburg Township, said it struck a tentative 10-year deal to build in China's vast desert north of the Great Wall.

The project would blanket 25 square miles of Inner Mongolia - slightly larger than the size of Manhattan - with a sea of black, light-absorbing glass. The solar field would dwarf anything in operation in the United States or Europe. At

2 gigawatts, or 2 billion watts, the solar plant could pump as much energy onto China's grid as two coal-fired plants, enough to light up 3 million homes. Like most solar plants, however, it wouldn't produce electricity at night.

"The potential is enormous" for projects like this in China, Chief Executive Mike Ahearn of the firm based in Tempe, Ariz., said. "The Chinese government is further along in its thinking about solar than we've imagined."

A solar field of this size in the United States would be impossible, he said, because there's not enough land near transmission lines and regulations vary by state.

Mr. Ahearn said much of the deal hasn't been settled, including how much First Solar would get paid. A system like this would cost $5 billion to $6 billion if it were built in the United States, but it likely would be cheaper using lower-cost Chinese labor.

The solar-module firm plans to make money by selling the plant to a local operator, but it can't es-

timate its profit until China determines the size of its solar-energy subsidy.

The project will be built in four phases in Ordos City in Inner Mongolia, the first starting by June 1, and the final phase to be completed by 2019, the company said.

The agreement for the deal came during a visit to Arizona by Wu Bangguo, chairman of China's National People's Congress and the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the United States since President Obama took office. Mr. Wu, who is leading a 100-member delegation, is slated to visit the White House and Capitol Hill, a top Chinese official said.

China plans to invest $300 billion in its alternative-energy industry from 2006 through 2020 as the world's second-biggest energy consumer looks to replace use of coal and oil with cleaner-burning fuels.

Other First Solar manufacturing plants are in Europe and in Malaysia.



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