By Herman K. Trabish
First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) has furloughed another 75 construction workers at its troubled Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One (AVSR1) as its confrontation with Los Angeles County dragged into its third month.
The County's inability to resolve the dispute over certification of electrical connectors on First Solar's panels has now led to, by First Solar's count, a total of 230 construction workers being furloughed at AVSR1, as well as 65 workers being released at the nearby Alpine Solar project at which First Solar's panels are also slated to be installed.
First Solar is in charge of engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) at both the 230-megawatt AVSR1, owned by Exelon Corporation (NYSE: EXC), and the 66-megawatt Alpine Solar, owned by NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG).
The standoff began in early April after an LA County safety inspector declined to certify First Solar's cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film photovoltaic PV panels.
AVSR1 will eventually require 3.7 million of the panels, according to the company. The Alpine project will require an estimated 1.1 million more panels. First Solar Public Relations Director Alan Bernheimer described the cartons and cartons of panels already delivered and sitting on palettes at both sites awaiting installation as numbering in the "many hundreds of thousands."
If the panels cannot be approved, the financial consequences for First Solar could be problematic to the already financially diminished company. First Solar's share price was as high as $140 in July 2011 but now hovers around $14.
"They are concerned about the connector on the solar panel," explained Bernheimer. "They are concerned that it is not UL [Underwriters Laboratory] certified for a 1,000 volt system." But, he added, "the module as well as the connector is certified for 1,000 volts under an IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission] certification recognized by the NESC [National Electric Safety Code]."
The Conditional Use Permit granted to First Solar by LA County specifies that electrical installations "shall be designed in accordance with the National Electric Safety Code or in accordance with other standards or regulations acceptable to the building official."
UL certification is the more common U.S. standard, whereas IEC certification is the more common international standard. First Solar panels are manufactured in Germany and Malaysia as well as in the U.S., and they won acceptance internationally slightly before they became widely used domestically.
"We don't believe there is any safety issue here," Bernheimer said. "The issue is which electrical code is appropriate for a utility PV power plant."
First Solar has, he added, "supplied reams of details and documentation that they have asked for. We have done everything we can think of to satisfy the requests for information and provide documentation for the appropriateness of the certifications. It's really in their hands at this point, and we're very eager to get it resolved and get people back to work."
The issue was not raised in Nevada, New Mexico or Texas where First Solar has done thin film installations totaling some 500 megawatts. And it is not a standard to which First Solar was held at the 21-megawatt, NRG-owned Blythe Solar Project built in LA County's neighboring Riverside County.
"Talks continue between LA County building officials and First Solar representatives," County of LA Department of Health and Safety spokesperson Kerjon Lee said in an email to GTM. "We remain optimistic that a resolution will be reached that allows the project to move forward."
"Supervisor Antonovich's office," said County Deputy Supervisor Norm Hickling in an email, "is in constant communication with County Departments and the Contractor to help facilitate a resolution."
Meanwhile, jobs continue to disappear like dust in the Antelope Valley wind.
"At Alpine," Bernheimer said, "we have finished the structural work [and] we did furlough workers there that, had we not faced this issue, would now be busy installing modules. About 65 workers there have been furloughed."
AVSR1 is two months behind schedule and panel installation should have started by now at Alpine, Bernheimer noted. "But that is not to say that we can't catch up."
Bernheimer said he did not think the number of people who have lost jobs includes the truckers delivering the panels. Nor does it consider the losses that the truckers and the employed workers had been injecting into the few, struggling businesses in the projects' vicinity.
Hickling said the Supervisor's office is in contact with furloughed First Solar employees, and added "there has been positive movement toward a resolution." But he would not speculate as to when that could happen.
"We do believe we are close to resolution and we hope to have a resolution," Bernheimer said, "but I have been saying that for weeks now."