First Solar, Inc. at a Glance

Uppers

  • Good pay and benefits.
  • Smart, talented workforce.
  • High-tech driven.

Downers

  • Too many meetings.
  • Lots of office politics.
  • Slow decision-making processes.

The Bottom Line

  • While First Solar is a leader in its field, the recent events have made the solar power industry turbulent.

About First Solar, Inc.

Watts up at First Solar Inc.? Exactly. The company's photovoltaic (PV) modules are used to convert the sun's energy to electricity, providing watts (measured in megawatts when gathered into large solar arrays) to power homes and businesses. To make its PV modules, the company uses cadmium and tellurium, which offer better yield in converting sunlight to electricity than conventional crystalline silicon. First Solar also plans, builds, and operates large solar power systems in the US and internationally. The company generates about three-quarters of sales in the US.

Operations

First Solar operates in two business segments, systems and modules. Systems, about 75% of revenue, provides start-to-finish services for building large-scale solar projects. Services include project development, engineering, procurement, and construction, as well as operations and maintenance. The modules segment, more than 20% of revenue, designs and makes the company's cadmium-tellurium (CdTe) solar modules using thin-film technology. First Solar operates three facilities to make the modules in a proprietary automated and continuous process.

Geographic Reach

First Solar has sales offices in more than 10 countries, including India, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Asia/Pacific region, and India. The US is its largest market, accounting for more than 75% of sales. California, which requires that utilities provide a certain percentage of their power from renewable energy sources, accounts for about 30% of the company's revenue from systems projects and third-party module sales. First Solar's international revenue comes in equal shares from customers in Australia, India, and Turkey. The company's manufacturing facilities are in Malaysia, Vietnam, and Ohio.

Sales and Marketing

First Solar customers Zorlu Enerji and RCR O'Donnell each account for more than 10% of the company's revenue. Sales of PV modules to other companies generate more than 25% of revenue.

Financial Performance

First Solar's revenue reached a high of $4.1 billion in 2015 only to drop to about $2.9 billion in 2016 and 2017.

The 2017 sales were driven by the sale of the Moapa, California Flats, Switch Station, and Cuyama projects during the year, as well as higher third-party module sales. Those increases were offset by the completion of construction on several projects in 2016, including the Desert Stateline, Astoria, Taylor, East Pecos, Silver State South, Butler, and McCoy projects.

First Solar lost about $165 million in 2017, an improvement from the $416 loss in 2016. The company reduced expenses, including those for sale and marketing and research and development, by some 75% in 2017, leading to a profit before taxes of about $200 million. But the US Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 imposed a tax bill of $372 million (it was $23 million in 2016).

First Solar strengthened its cash holdings in 2017 with $2.3 billion on hand, up from $1.4 billion the year before. It free cash flow figure brightened to a positive $826 million in 2017 compared to a negative $23 million in 2016.

Strategy

First Solar accelerated bringing its next-generation PV technology to market to drive sales. The company moved up the release of its Series 6 PV module to 2018, leapfrogging the Series 5. The company scrapped development of its Series 5 product, began winding down production of the Series 4 module, and converted many its manufacturing lines to the cadmium-telluride process. First Solar is betting that the Series 6 will offer a sizable competitive advantage. It is to have better conversion efficiency and a larger size that will provide more watts per panel at a module cost-per-watt that is 40% lower than the Series 4. The move helps First Solar maintain a good price for its cadmium-telluride technology as prices for crystalline silicon have plummeted.

To help produce the Series 6, First Solar is taking its Vietnamese manufacturing plant out of mothball. Re-opening the plant enables the company to add Series 6 production without curtailing Series 4 production, and it provides flexibility in production capacity during the transition to the new series.

However, First Solar could run into problems with trade actions meant to protect US industries with its plants in Malaysia and Vietnam. It's possible tariffs could be placed on solar production imported to the US. Trade threats prompted First Solar competitor SunPower to buy another rival's production capacity in Oregon.

First Solar faces fierce competition and some of its competitors have deeper resources. SunPower, for one, is own by a bigger company, the French energy firm Total. Competitors overseas have the direct or implied backing of their governments. Chinese solar companies have been accused of selling their products below cost to gain market share. Such actions have prompted tariffs.

Mergers and Acquisitions

In 2016 First Solar acquired Enki Technology Inc., a developer of advanced coating materials for the PV solar industry, for about $10 million. The deal included patents, technical information, and expertise associated with the development and production of anti-reflective coating material used in the production of solar modules.

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First Solar, Inc.

350 W Washington St Ste 600
Tempe, AZ 85281-1496
Phone: 1 (602) 414-9300
Fax: 1 (602) 414-9400

Stats

  • Employer Type: Public
  • Stock Symbol: FSLR
  • Stock Exchange: NASDAQ
  • CEO: Mark R. Widmar
  • Electrical Engineer: Frank Shiflett
  • CEO: Mark R. Widmar
  • 2016 Employees: 5,400

Major Office Locations

  • Tempe, AZ

Other Locations

  • Dateland, AZ
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Perrysburg, OH