First Solar takes energy from the sun and converts it to electricity to keep your refrigerator running and your smartphone charged. The company's photovoltaic (PV) modules do the conversion using a thin-film semiconductor process. First Solar's manufacturing process converts a piece of glass 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 project development services for planning, building, and operating solar power generating systems. The company makes 90% of sales in the US.
Of First Solar's two segments – components and systems -- systems is the biggest, generating 67% of revenue. It provides turnkey solar system services 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.The components segment, which accounts for 33% of sales, designs and makes solar modules. Customers include project developers, system integrators, and operators of renewable energy projects.
First Solar operates 30 manufacturing lines in two plants, one in Malaysia and the other in the US (Ohio). It has sales offices in nine countries, including Canada, China, Germany, and India. The US is its largest market, accounting for 90% of sales.
Sales and Marketing
Its largest customers are AES, NRG Energy, Exelon, and MidAmerican Renewables (a subsidiary of MidAmerican Energy). Each accounted for more than 10% of revenues. First Solar bumped up advertising spending in 2014 to about $3 million from about $2 million in 2013.
First Solar's revenue perked up a bit in 2014, rising 2.5% to $3.4 billion from $3.3 billion in 2013. Sales in the company's systems segment rose 7% as several projects progressed. The sale of parts or all of several solar projects added to revenue. Component revenue dropped about 6%.
Net income rose 12% in 2014 to $397 million from $353 million the year before. Besides higher revenue, bottom line benefited from the absence of restructuring and asset impairment charges. Those charges hit the company for about $87 million in 2013.
Cash flow from operations fell to $681 million in 2014 compared to $856 million in 2013 because of changes in assets and liabilities.
First Solar is focused on the US and in developing markets such as Latin America, Asia, India, the Middle East, and Africa. 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.
In the US, First Solar substantially completed the Desert Sunlight and Topaz projects, two of the largest solar power plants in the world. The generation capacity of the two projects taken together would provide enough clean energy to power more than 320,000 average California homes.
On the component side, First Solar produced solar cells with conversion efficiency of 21.5%, a record for efficiency. The company continues to develop cells based on its cadmium-telluride technology.
While solar energy has become a component of the energy mix it faces challenges. One is that lower prices for oil-based products makes solar a relatively more expensive component. Another factor that could disturb the cost-benefit ratio are government subsidies. The loss of such benefits could increase the price of solar energy.
Mergers and Acquisitions
First Solar bought skytron-energy, a subsidiary of AEG Power Solutions, in 2014. Skytron has installed monitoring and control systems in more than 600 plants across Europe with a total peak capacity of 5 gigawatts, which doubled First Solar's global portfolio of monitored assets.It broadens First Solar's portfolio of energy assets deeper into Europe .
The estate of the late John Walton (of the Wal-Mart Waltons) owns about 30% of First Solar.