The announcement this week by Warren Buffet's MidAmerican Energy Holdings that it will make a $2 billion investment in First Solar's Topaz 550-MW solar farm represents a second significant market breakthrough for photovoltaics. Barely more than a week ago Solar City announced it would proceed with a far-reaching program to equip military residences around the country with PV arrays, even though it had been unable to secure a hoped-for Federal loan guarantee in the wake of the Solyndra bankruptcy. Similarly, Buffet's investment in Topaz enables First Solar to move ahead confidently with the project, even though it too failed to obtain a hoped-for Federal loan guarantee.
First Solar, the innovative maker of a low-cost, thin-film PV material, has been in some turmoil this year, suffering--like so many other companies in the same position--from brutal competition from Chinese manufacturers of generic polysilicon cells. To be competitive even under more normal business circumstances, First Solar's arrays require a lot of inexpensive land that gets a lot of all-day, round-the-year sunlight. (What is more, a long-standing policy of refusing to talk to the press under any circumstances may not have helped First Solar retain the confidence of investors this year.)
First Solar had obtained Federal loan guarantees for three other large projects but had been unable to get one for Topaz, a sprawling solar farm it already has started to build in California's San Luis Obispo county. Buffets's MidAmerican will take ownership of the project, which First Solar will continue to build and eventually operate.
MidAmerican, a unit of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, has broad holdings in utilities and energy, but Topaz is its first foray into solar generation.