If issues like climate change and excess consumption aren’t concerning enough, then there’s little doubt soaring energy costs around the world are likely to have many thinking about energy usage.
First Solar is a leading global solar technology company that specializes in the design, manufacture, and sale of solar modules aimed at advancing the fight against climate change, as well as delivering an economically attractive alternative to fossil-fuel electricity. The company’s advanced thin film photovoltaic (PV) modules represent the next generation of cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar technologies, which provide a competitive, high-performance, lower-carbon alternative to conventional silicon PV panels.
In addition to manufacturing solar modules, First Solar also develops and builds large-scale solar power plants. The company’s utility-scale projects located across the globe are capable of generating several megawatts of electricity, enough to power thousands of homes. It also provides engineering, procurement, and construction services for its power plant projects, as well as operations and maintenance services once the plants are up and running, allowing it to manage the entire life cycle of its major projects.
As a unique player among the world’s ten largest solar manufacturers for being the only US-headquartered company and not manufacturing in China, the company is currently heavily concentrated on setting the stage for long-term growth. It continues to develop its CdTe semiconductor technology with new platforms aimed at improving the efficiency of its solar panels and lowering the cost of solar power. Currently focusing on expanding into markets and jurisdictions, in which its CdTe modules provide advantages over conventional silicon technology, it is also scaling its global manufacturing capacity to over 20 gigawatts by 2025, enough to power approximately 20 million homes per year.
First Solar’s origins date back to 1984 when inventor and entrepreneur Harold McMaster founded Glasstech Solar. Initially using silicon, McMaster shifted to using cadmium telluride thin-film solar modules, which are more efficient and cost-effective than traditional silicon-based panels. His company was eventually bought out in 1999 and First Solar was born.
Historically, it sold its products to solar project developers, system integrators, and independent power producers. Early sales were primarily in Germany because of strong government incentives, however, declines and uncertainty in feed-in-tariff subsidies across European markets prompted the company to accelerate its expansion into other markets, including the U.S., India, and China.
In 2011, First Solar announced that it would begin to shift its focus from manufacturing to developing and building large-scale solar power plants. This move was driven by the growing demand for solar energy and the company’s belief that this market offered greater growth potential than the crowded and highly competitive solar panel manufacturing market.
The company has continued to grow and expand its business over the years, and it is now one of the leading developers and operators of utility-scale solar power plants in the world.
Mark Widmar has been the current chief executive officer of First Solar since 2016, after having joined the company in 2011 as Chief Accounting Officer. Prior to joining First Solar, Widmar held various leadership positions in the energy and power industry with 8point3 Energy Partners, GrafTech International, and NCR Inc. Under his leadership, First Solar has seen significant growth and success. The company has expanded its global footprint and increased its production capacity of advanced solar technology. He has also been instrumental in driving the company’s focus on sustainability and increasing its investment in research and development.
Long-serving executive, Markus Gloeckler, joins Widmar as the company’s chief technology officer. Having joined First Solar in 2005 in an engineering function, Gloeckler has worked up through various senior roles with extensive experience guiding strategic research and development activities. Since 2020, he has been focused on driving First Solar’s thin-film PV module technology. He has been instrumental in enabling the company’s achievement of various world records relating to conversion efficiency for CdTe solar cells. He also led the transfer of thin-film technology from General Electric to First Solar following an intellectual property acquisition in 2013.
First Solar’s Series 6 and Series 6 Plus PV modules are setting an industry benchmark for reliable energy production, optimized design, and environmental performance. Thanks to the usage of cadmium telluride as the active photovoltaic material in its panels, the production of First Solar’s solutions can be achieved with high efficiency at a lower cost compared to those manufacturing silicon panels. The Series 6 module has efficiency of up to 17.0% and a long-term performance warranty of 25 years. The panels offer an advanced design that not only significantly reduces costs, but also has strong performance even in the most extreme high temperature and low-light environments, which makes them suitable for large-scale power plants.
In addition to the Series 6 line, First Solar also offers a range of other products and services, including engineering, procurement, and construction for utility-scale solar power plants, operation and maintenance (O&M) services, energy storage systems, and project development, as well as recycling services for solar panels.
Core customers include utility companies, power developers, and commercial and industrial companies that use solar power for electricity generation. The products are primarily used in utility-scale plants, although they also offer panels for use in residential and commercial applications. Utility customers typically have large-scale energy needs and are looking for reliable, cost-effective solutions. As a result, the company’s comprehensive suite of products and complementary services are well-suited, as together they provide high-efficiency, long-lasting solar panels, coupled with a range of support services to ensure ongoing optimal performance and reliability.
Looking ahead, the company is in the process of rolling out its Series 7 modules, for which it will significantly increase capacity in the next couple of years. The next-gen panels have improved efficiency of 19.3% and a life cycle warranty of around 30 years of use.
First Solar’s growth strategy centers on expanding its solar power plant development business, increasing its manufacturing capacity, and entering new geographic markets. Additionally, the company continues to invest in research and development to improve the efficiency of its solar panels and lower the cost of solar power. It is currently focusing on markets and jurisdictions, in which its CdTe modules provide advantages over conventional crystalline silicon technology, including high-insolation climates and humid environments.
In particular, the United States, which accounted for 84% of the company’s 2021 net sales, exemplifies favorable conditions given its sizeable electricity demand, growing population centers and industrial areas, strong demand for renewable energy generation, and abundant solar resources. Most markets across Europe also reflect strong demand for PV solar energy due to its ability to compete economically with more traditional forms of energy generation.
India represents one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for PV solar energy. The Indian government has established aggressive renewable energy targets and has also announced a series of policy and regulatory measures to incentivize domestic manufacturing of solar modules. These targets, policies, and regulatory measures are expected to help create significant and sustained demand, particularly for First Solar’s CdTe solar technology which is well suited for the Indian market given its hot and humid climate conditions.
Japan’s electricity markets also have various characteristics that make them attractive for solar energy investments. With few domestic fossil fuel resources it relies heavily on imports. Accordingly, the government is aiming to dramatically increase installed solar power capacity and provided various incentives for solar power installations. Consequently, in recent years, First Solar has partnered with local companies to develop, construct, sell, and operate various PV solar power systems, which are expected to mitigate the country’s dependence on fossil fuel imports and nuclear power.
To improve manufacturing capacity, First Solar is investing approximately $1.2 billion in scaling its U.S. manufacturing footprint via the construction of entirely new facilities and the optimization of current capacity. Driven by robust demand for its module technology as well as U.S.-manufactured products, the company expects to expand its domestic capacity to approximately 10.7 gigawatts by 2026. Furthermore, with the enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act providing production tax incentives and credits for solar and clean hydrogen, as well as wider expansion of industry investment, the company has better long-term clarity necessary to support its initiatives.
While First Solar took a modest hit to its top-line revenue during the covid pandemic, in 2021 the company saw a return that was marginally shy of the $3.06 billion in revenue achieved in 2019. In its third quarter, net sales were $629 million, up 8% on the prior year’s comparative, primarily driven by higher module volumes sold in Malaysia and Vietnam.
Strong bookings momentum has continued throughout 2022, with the company’s total backlog of future deliveries now standing at a record 58.1 gigawatts and includes orders for delivery as far into the future as 2027.
Most recently, margins have been impacted largely due to logistics charges as a result of containers and modules remaining in port beyond contractually agreed periods. Given container shortages and transit times well above pre-pandemic norms, a recent significant reversal in these metrics, though welcomed on a long-term basis, created near-term logistical challenges.
Management has taken a conservative outlook for its forward guidance, forecasting revenue for 2022 to end the year between $2.6 billion and $2.7 billion in line with consensus estimates and representing a contraction of 10%. However, the outlook for 2023 and 2024 is far more positive with analysts projecting year-over-year improvements of more than 30% per annum. While full-year earnings per share are also forecasted to record a loss of $1.59 in 2022, a strong positive turnaround is also expected for 2023 and 2024, improving to $6.05 and $11.56 per share respectively.
The solar energy and renewable energy sectors are highly competitive and continually evolving as participants strive to distinguish themselves within their markets and compete within the larger electric power industry. First Solar faces intense competition for sales of solar modules from the likes of Canadian Solar, JinkoSolar, Trina Solar, and Yingli Green Energy, who all compete on various factors such as panel efficiency, cost of production, and geographic presence.
Of particular note, is that many manufacturers have links to China and may have access to sovereign capital, which could enable them to operate at minimal or negative operating margins for sustained periods. Conversely, given First Solar is not as dependent on government subsidies, it is not as susceptible to changes in policy or tariffs. Furthermore, as one of the largest in the industry, it benefits from a strong scale and an ability to deliver locally produced solutions for its largest markets.
First Solar’s use of thin-film technology has allowed it to achieve market-leading efficiency and cost-effective solar panel production compared to traditional silicon technology. With a large and diversified project pipeline, a strong balance sheet, coupled with a solid reputation in the industry and a history of successful project development and execution, its outlook for further expansion and growth appears well supported.