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 more than 85% 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 operates 28 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 85% of sales. The company shut down its manufacturing plant in Germany in 2012 and its trying to sell a non-operating plant in Vietnam.
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.
In 2013 overall sales decreased about 2% to $3.31 billion from $3.37 billion in 2012. Solar module sales to third parties increased in 2013 with a higher volume of watts sold, partly offset by lower average prices per watt. But revenue in the larger systems segment dropped in 2013 from 2012, affected by the number and size of projects under construction year-to-year and timing in revenue recognition. First Solar rebounded to profitability in 2013 posting net income of $353 million compared to losses in 2012 and 2011. For 2013, restructuring costs were lower as were selling and administrative expenses and production startup expenses. Cash flow from operations continued growing in 2013, reaching nearly $860 million from about $760 million in 2012. Higher net cash from customers helped the cash flow.
First Solar is focused on the US and in developing markets such as Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. 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. First Solar started construction in early 2104 on a 22-megawatt power plant in Pecos County, Texas. Further afield, the company teamed with IXL Solar in Australia on a facility to build mounting structures for First Solar projects in New South Wales.
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.
In 2013, First Solar bought CdTe PV intellectual property and CdTe solar manufacturing processes from GE for abpouit $84 million in First Solar common stock. Also in 2013, the company spent about $40 million to buy TetraSun, an early stage company that develops technology that's expected to improve on conventional crystalline silicon solar modules. In 2014, First Solar announced it would acquire skytron-energy, a subsidiary of AEG Power Solutions. Skytron provides utility-scale photovoltaic power plant management systems, operations and maintenance (O&M) services, data monitoring technology, and equipment to solar power plants. The deal was made to support First Solar's initiative to provide a wide range of services.
The estate of the late John Walton (of the Wal-Mart Waltons) owns about 30% of First Solar.