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 87% of sales in the US.
First Solar's systems segment generates 61% of its revenue. Systems 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 39% 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 87% of sales. Australia and India are the second and third biggest markets supplying 5% and 4% of revenue, respectively.
Sales and Marketing
First Solar customers Southern Power Company and NextEra Energy each accounted for more than 10% of the revenue in each of the company's segments in 2015.
First Solar's revenue rose a respectable 5.5% in 2015 while profit shot 38% higher for the year.
Revenue increased on the strength of components, for which sales increased 26% for 2105 from 2015. The volume of watts sold rose while the average selling price decreased. Systems sales decline in 2015 from 2014, a year in which several major solar projects were completed.
The big profit jump came from higher revenue, lower research and development expenses, and income tax benefit.
First Solar's cash flow shift from coming to going out. The company generated $681 million in cash flow from operations in 2014, but an increase in project assets and deferred project costs led to cash outflow of $360 million.
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.
On the component side, First Solar produced in 2015 solar cells with conversion efficiency of 21.5%, a record for efficiency. The company continues to develop cells based on its cadmium-telluride technology.
In 2016 First Solar introduced the Series 5 module technology, which has a larger form factor, higher wattage, and has fewer electrical connections and less hardware required for installation.
Also in 2016 the company signed power purchase agreements with Southern California Edison for the offtake of electricity generated by four solar projects totaling 500 MW.
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 broadened 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.