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First Solar closes deal, furloughs workers 

First Solar finalized a deal to sell off its 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in eastern San Luis Obispo County and furloughed nearly half of its workforce due to engineering problems with the project, all in the same month.

With the closing of a deal, famed billionaire Warren Buffet now officially owns a small piece of San Luis Obispo County that will eventually house the world’s largest solar power plant. According to a First Solar news release, the company closed the deal with Buffet’s MidAmerican Renewables, LLC, on Jan. 31. Neither company has disclosed the exact numbers in press statements or in filings with the Securities Exchange Commission. In a December news release from First Solar, the company said its Topaz project is worth more than $2 billion.

About 50 workers at the project site were “temporarily furloughed starting Jan. 16,” according to a First Solar spokesman. About a dozen were brought back to work a few days later.

“The reason for the furlough was a pause in our installation of posts that will support the arrays, pending an engineering review of our post installation methodology that is now largely completed,” First Solar spokesman Alan Bernheimer said in an e-mail. “On a construction project as large and complex as Topaz, mid-course adjustments of work velocity and workforce are not unexpected.”

Those adjustments came at the tail end of a bad year for the Arizona-based company. The U.S. Department of Energy in September 2011 denied First Solar’s application for a federal loan guarantee on the Topaz project. By the end of 2011, the company landed itself as one of the worst performing stocks in the S&P 500 that year. Once valued at about $25 billion, the company downgraded its sales forecasts, replaced its CEO, and closed out 2011 valued at about $2.64 billion, according to financial news sources.

Construction of the Topaz project is scheduled for completion in 2015. Once complete, the project will have spread roughly six square miles of solar panels across the Carrizo Plain.

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