Like the ancient Egyptians who worshiped Ra, First Solar looks to the sun for rising fortunes. The company manufactures photovoltaic (PV) modules for converting sunlight into electricity. Using a thin-film semiconductor process, a piece of glass is transformed into a complete solar module in less than three hours. The technology is cheaper and produces more electricity under real-world conditions than conventional solar panels with similar power ratings. First Solar also provides solar power plant project development services. The company makes 80% of sales in the US.
First Solar operates in two segments – components and systems. The components segment, which accounts for 35% of sales, designs and makes solar modules. Customers include project developers, system integrators, and operators of renewable energy projects. The systems business, which accounts for 65% of sales, provides turnkey solar power systems such as project development, EPC services (engineering, procurement, and construction), as well as operations and maintenance. Customers include utilities, independent power developers and producers, and commercial and industrial companies.
First Solar has manufacturing plants in Malaysia and the US (Ohio) and sales offices in nine international countries, including Canada, China, Germany, and India. The US is its largest market, accounting for 80% of sales. The company shut down its manufacturing plant in Germany in 2012 and had plans to open one in Vietnam, but currently has the property up for sale.
Sales and Marketing
Its largest customers are NRG Energy, Exelon, and MidAmerican Renewables (a subsidiary of MidAmerican Energy). Each accounted for more than 10% of revenues.
In 2012 overall sales were up more than 20% to $3.3 billion, but the company reported a net loss for the second year in a row. The increased sales came from the systems segment due to completed solar projects in California and Nevada, such as AV Solar Ranch One, Topaz, Copper Mountain 2, St. Clair, Silver State North, Alpine, Imperial Energy Center South, and Avra Valley.
First Solar is focused on the US and in developing markets such as Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. It does not consider Europe a sustainable market anymore and closed its plant in Germany in 2012. In fall 2013 the company announced the sale of its non-functioning factory in Mesa, Arizona for more than $100 million. Its long-term strategy is to pursue utility-scale solar opportunities in areas the company considers to have high growth potential and sustainable markets. As such, First Solar announced it would form an operating company in India to take advantage of opportunities in the country, which has abundant solar resources and significant energy demand. Indeed, in 2012 First Solar entered into an agreement to supply its technology for two power plants to be built in Rajasthan, India.
In November 2013 the company struck a deal to sell electricity from its 40-megawatt Kingbird photovoltaic solar power plant in Kern County, California to four area cities: Pasadena, Riverside, Colton, and Azusa. First Solar is developing and will construct the project. Construction is slated to begin in 2014 and be completed in 2015.
Mergers and Acquisitions
In early 2013 it acquired Chilean solar development firm Solar Chile, which has a portfolio of power projects totaling about 1.5 GW. The year before it bought California-based TetraSun, a startup that developed solar cells that are 20% more energy efficient. In 2011 it bought RayTracker, a solar tracking company owned by Idealab.
First Solar has also divested completed projects. In 2010 it sold four small PV projects in Canada to NextEra Energy; it sold another two Canadian projects totaling 40 MWs to NextEra in 2012; the electricity generated is sold to the Ontario Power Authority. It also sold the 290 MW Agua Caliente solar project in Arizona to NRG Energy. Agua Caliente will be finished in 2014 and provide power for Pacific Gas and Electric. Continuing the divestments in 2012, First Solar sold the 50 MW Silver State North photovoltaic project in Clark County, Nevada to Enbridge.
The estate of the late John Walton (of the Wal-Mart Waltons) owns about 30% of First Solar.