OptiSolar to Turn on Solar Power Soon

While OptiSolar, the solar photovoltaic startup that scored that massive deal with California utility PG&E, is remaining mum on the details of its technology, the company did confirm with us that it expects its solar power plant in Sarnia, Ontario, to start producing power before the end of the year — that’s within a 10 week or so window. This is the first of six, 10 MW solar farms that the company plans to build and it is the first installation of OptiSolar’s technology.
We met up with Alan Bernheimer, OptiSolar’s V-P of corporate communications, this week at the Solar Power International conference in San Diego, where he told us that construction of this first phase of the Sarnia farm will likely be completed in early 2009. The company has a broader contract to sell more than 200 MW of power to Ontario Power Authority.
After Sarnia, OptiSolar will get cracking on its Topaz solar plant, in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., which looks to be the largest photovoltaic utility deal around with 550 MW. Construction on Topaz is planned to start in 2010, electricity generation could start in 2011, and the plant could be finished by 2013.

Bernheimer says the company isn’t worried about the financial turmoil as of late as the company won’t be raising financing to build its Topaz plant for another 12-18 months. OptiSolar appears to have already raised enough cash — reportedly close to $200 million — though it won’t comment on its financing. More important than the credit crunch, Bernheimer says was congress passing the renewable energy tax credits, which the entire industry is relieved about. Bernheimer noted that even their utility partner PG&E was concerned about that.
So what makes OptiSolar so special that it snagged a historic deal in the face of a lot of competition? We’re still not sure, but Bernheimer says their ability to produce their thin film photovoltaics at a low cost comes from “automated manufacturing,” and vertical integration of the company — including everything from installer to manufacturer. “PV is going to become a commodity product, you can’t win on just technology alone,” says Bernheimer. Neither OptiSolar, nor PG&E, will divulge the pricing of the power purchase agreement.
Large solar manufacturers adding installation and even financing arms is a long time trend. SunPower bought PowerLight back in 2006, and First Solar bought Ted Turner’s solar installer company Turner Renewable Energy, renamed DT Solar, back in 2007.
OptiSolar will soon turn on its first solar generation farm and will ramp up production of its solar gear with a new factory in Sacramento. The company says its one-million-square-foot Sacramento plant, which will go under construction in early 2009, and will be the largest PV manufacturing plant in North America when constructed with a capacity of 600 MW per year. The city of Sacramento seems happy about the plan, and is deferring certain taxes for OptiSolar, while the plant will offer close to 1,000 jobs when it is built in about 3 years time.