First Solar's shocking strategy shift

The company plans to eventually exit subsidized solar markets completely.

By Jim J. Jubak Dec 16, 2011 5:00PM
Image: Solar energy (© Mick Roessler/Corbis)Woof! First Solar (FSLR) delivered a gut-wrenching conference call Wednesday.

The big item wasn’t the reduction in projected earnings for the year ending in December to $5.75 to $6 a share from the previous estimate of $6.50 to $7.50.

It wasn’t even the shocking reduction in projected 2012 earnings per share to $3.75 to $4.25 from the Wall Street consensus of $7.20.

The big item was First Solar’s plan to gradually exit subsidized solar markets completely. After describing the huge increase in supply, largely out of China, and the slowing of demand growth from the reduction or elimination of solar subsidies, CEO Michael Ahearn told analysts and investors that First Solar was "shifting our revenue base from subsidized to sustainable markets, starting in 2012. It won't happen overnight and we'll have to transition out of the subsidies we currently depend on, but our goal is to shift progressively over the 2012 to 2014 timeframe so that by Q4 2014, we derive virtually all of our new revenues from sustainable markets."

In other words, First Solar doesn’t see solar markets returning to former profitability within that time next year or the year after, so the company has decided to concentrate on designing, engineering, and constructing utility-scale power plants rather than focusing on the sales of solar modules. (First Solar is a member of my Jubak Picks 50 long-term portfolio.)

That transition presents some big challenges for First Solar. To compete in the non-subsidized market, the company, by its calculations, will have to achieve a levelized cost of electricity of 10 cents to 14 cents per kilowatt-hour. And that will require a reduction in production costs roughly 30% greater by 2015 than the company had previously projected for 2014. That’s a high bar to jump.

The transition also signals First Solar’s belief that the economics of the solar industry are permanently out of whack. Yes, at some point the current demand slump will force enough players out of the industry to put supply and demand back into balance. But that will be only temporary, Ahearn said. Since there are no longer any technology barriers to entry in the silicon-based solar industry, supply will swing back to excess whenever capital is available. (Although First Solar produces thin-film solar modules based on cadmium telluride rather than crystal silicon, it competes on cost with silicon solar companies.) 

"In an industry without entry barriers, which we believe is the case for the polysilicon PV module industry, the easy reentry of competitors and expansion of capacity will keep downward pressure on prices and margins indefinitely," Ahearn said.


That’s a rather grim assessment. (And somewhat longer than the assessment I offered in my Nov. 15 post.) Which doesn’t mean First Solar is wrong, of course. If Ahearn is right, the key competitive edge in the solar sector isn’t technology but cheap capital. And we know where that’s available. Perhaps indefinitely. (Hint: It’s the country where the pandas live.)

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. The mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not own positions in any stock mentioned. The fund did not own shares of First Solar as of the end of September. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here. 

Tags: FSLR
Dec 16, 2011 6:48PM
Jim, I hope this does not come as a surprise, but the US markets (viva CA) are largely subsidized by the renewable standards adopted in various States. The Renewable Portfolio requirements are a synthetic subsidy program, forcing regulated utilities to purchase expensive energy and capacity from qualifying renewable energy projects. But this legal framework creates a mechanism to allow the utility to pass the high cost of the renewable product on the rate payer. So its not a direct subsidy from state or federal sources, but a subsidy paid directly by the rate base. Renewable portfolio standards = synthetic subsidy. The growth of these standards creates a opaque subsidy for all manifestations of renewable energy projects.
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