The project is the first phase of a planned 700-megawatt project called Mesquite Solar to be built about 40 miles west of Phoenix and operated by Sempra Generation, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy. A California utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, will buy the electricity produced by the power plant’s first phase, called Mesquite Solar 1.
As photovoltaic panel prices have plummeted in recent years, utilities have increasingly turned to developers to build massive megawatt projects. American companies like First Solar of Tempe, Ariz., and Silicon Valley’s SunPower have captured the bulk of those contracts.
For instance, last month Southern California Edison signed contracts with SunPower to buy 711 megawatts of electricity from three large photovoltaic projects.
While Chinese companies like Suntech, Yingli Green Energy and Trina Solar have grabbed a significant percentage of the American residential solar market — supplying nearly 40 percent of panels in California — they had shied away from huge utility-scale projects.
Suntech has supplied solar panels for much smaller utility projects but expects large power plants like Mesquite Solar to account for a growing share of its United States revenues, according to Andrew Beebe, the company’s chief commercial officer.
“We think it is significant for us to win a project this large but I don’t know if it’s a China-U.S thing,” Mr. Beebe said in an interview. “We are a global company and we sell all over the world though the vast majority of our product is manufactured in China.”
Last year, Suntech opened its first American factory in Goodyear, Ariz., about 30 miles from the Mesquite site. Mr. Beebe said the factory, which is expected to have a capacity of 50 megawatts by the end of 2011, would supply less than 10 percent of the solar panels for Mesquite Solar 1.
An engineering and construction firm, Zachry Holdings, will build Mesquite Solar 1 while Suntech will provide technical support in addition to supplying the panels.
Mr. Beebe said Suntech planned to bid on subsequent phases of the Mesquite project.
“This was a highly competitive bid,” he said. “The overall cost of the project was featured prominently in the bid process. There are a number of choices out there for companies like Sempra.”
Other Chinese solar companies also are eying the United States market for photovoltaic power plants. In November, a subsidiary of GCL-Poly Energy Holdings, a manufacturer of silicon wafers used to make solar panels, formed a joint venture with SolarReserve of California to develop photovoltaic farms.