What is Apple doing with an empty solar factory?

What a long, strange trip it’s been for the planned First Solar factory in Mesa, Arizona.

The jumbo-sized facility was built to make solar panels, but even with First Solar on a big upswing now, that plan was torpedoed for good by the great solar manufacturing collapse of 2010-11, which unfolded after China went on a crazed panel-making binge. And now that big empty building in Arizona is going to Apple, to be used by a company called GT that supplies specialty glass for i-things.

What was built to be a First Solar manufacturing plant, Mesa, Ariz. (image via Blue Oak Energy)

First Solar had said its plant would bring 600 jobs to the area, and although it had to wait a while, AZ will apparently do better with Apple/GT: The state of Arizona said in a statement [PDF] that plant will “create at least 700 quality jobs in the first year and generate significant capital investment.” Some 1,300 construction jobs will also be generated, the state said, suggesting that Apple will do a lot more with the site than move its gear into First

Even with First Solar now officially and forever done with the facility, there does remain a renewable energy angle to it: Apple told CNET that the Mesa plant “will run on 100 percent renewable energy from day one, as a result of the work we are doing with SRP to create green energy sources to power the facility.”

It appears to have a head start on that. About a year ago, Blue Oak Energy announced that it had installed a 4.1-megawatt solar array on the building. Yes, that’s big: 900,000 square feet of rooftop area covered with 55,000 thin-film plants made by – who else? – First Solar.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling