Company Spotlight: First Solar (FSLR)

In recent years, alternative energy has grown immensely in both popularity and use, as nations across the globe seek to end the fossil fuel addiction by which modern society is currently saddled. While there are various forms of renewable energies, one of the most popular and practical comes in the form of solar energy. Solar energy is generally derived from photovoltaic modules, which are usually made from crystalline silicon to help capture the sun’s light. With the sun being a never-ending source of energy (at least for our lifetimes), it is no surprise to see a wealth of companies make a move into the solar industry, with one of the best-known companies being First Solar (FSLR).

First Solar was founded in 1999 when the company Solar Cells was purchased by True North Partners and re-branded to today’s current name “First Solar, Inc.”. The company went public in 2006, trading on the NASDAQ, though it would later become the first ever pure alternative energy company to be a component of the S&P 500. The company has a long list of honors and nods as an industry leader; in 2010 First Solar ranked seventh on Fortune’s fastest growing companies, and in 2011 was given the nod as the number one ranked company on Forbes’ 25 fastest-growing tech companies in the U.S. And best of all, tactical business decisions have provided the groundwork for a strong future: “even if the stock market crashed tomorrow, these guys would have the cash to keep growing” said David Thomson referring to the very low debt levels the company has taken on but to this point.

Current Operations

First Solar’s main business comes from the development of photovoltaic modules which utilize cadmium telluride (CdTe) as a semiconductor for power. This departs from the norm of the industry, as silicon-based modules are more efficient, but far more costly than CdTe.  Also CdTe operates in a much wider variety of light and temperature conditions, which has given First Solar a considerable leg up on its competition in a variety of markets.

The company has seen great success thanks to its competitive pricing, as it was the first solar company to lower manufacturing costs below $1-per watt, making the energy prices of these modules competitive with more conventional energy sources. By 2014, the company is predicted to lower costs all the way down to approximately 53 cents per watt, which may make it considerably more competitive when it comes to providing energy for citizens all across the globe. First Solar operates in a number of countries around the world, including Germany, Malaysia, Vietnam and others. For the time being, the company continues to predict lower expenses, more efficient modules, and has plans to place more modules as time goes on, creating an exciting growth potential for this firm and industry as a whole [see Top 25 Commodity Tweeples Worth A Follow On Twitter].


As for the solar industry as a whole, predictions as to its future output seem foggy. Depending on which analyst you ask, some believe that it has an extremely strong future citing many different predictions that involve a major uptick in the usage of solar power overall. On the other hand, others believe the industry will quickly be coming to a halt, as it has grown so quickly and supply may soon outstrip demand. The truth likely lies somewhere in between, as nobody can say for sure what will happen with this, or any other means of energy production over the next decade. What First Solar can say for certain, is that three separate solar projects in California have been offered conditional federal loans (totaling to roughly $4.5 billion), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. These projects will create 1,400 jobs and 1,300 mega-watts of new, clean energy, helping the industry to grow more at home as well.

While First Solar is aiming to ramp up its operations, it faces stiff competition from numerous firms across the globe. Chinese companies account for the bulk of the competition, with big name firms like Trina Solar threatening to take away some of the massive market share that FSLR has developed. Other major competitors from China include JA Solar, Yingli Solar, and Jinko Solar. Investors in this company should bear in mind that 61.3% of its operations come form international countries (not including Germany which makes up 13.8% on its own), so markets abroad will have a heavy impact on this U.S.-based company.

Risks and Rewards

As with any alternative energy company, First Solar will come with its fair share of risks. For the time being, solar energy only accounts for 0.08% of total U.S. energy supplies as of 2010, while other forms of clean energy, like wind and biomass, take much more substantial allocations. Some may see this small figure as an opportunity, while other may see it as a reason to steer clear of any kind of solar-based investment. Another major risk comes from oil supplies; as companies continue to find new resources or gain the ability to tap into fields that were once out of reach, oil will likely remain one of the cheapest form of energy. Though this can also work in the opposite direction; if oil supplies dwindle or production becomes too expensive, solar may be a good option to turn to for many cost conscious firms.

Government subsidies are another big factor when it comes to energy production. Right now, the majority of U.S. subsidies are granted to oil firms, making it more difficult for alternative energy companies like FSLR to penetrate the market. But if the subsidy system was shaken up, and tilted towards solar power, the outlook for First Solar could be extremely different. Also consider that the government could favor a more popular alternative energy in this situation, potentially leaving solar in the dust. Overseas, solar operations are looked upon far more favorably and are often greeted with more tax breaks and incentives. This tends to favor FSLR because the firm does more operations abroad than at home, and as such, investors should closely monitor how subsidies and policies are behaving in countries like Germany and other nations in the EU in order to gather more clues about the risks and rewards of investing in this company [see 50 Free Web Resources For Commodity Investors].

Stock Analysis

Over the last year, FSLR’s stock price has been relatively volatile, although year-over-year it is currently just about flat. Investors should note that while the price was above $300 per share just before the recession hit, the price has straddled back and forth from the range of approximately $110 and $160 per share ever since. This may be especially concerning considering the fact that major equity benchmarks have rebounded from their recessionary lows while FSLR has been stuck in the middle, failing to match broad indexes. Though, it is important to note that FSLR is not alone in being range-bound, as the Guggenheim Solar ETF (TAN), which is representative of the entire industry, has been stuck in a similar pattern as well.

One of the first things to notice about this stock is its high liquidity, with over 1 million shares traded daily, and a market cap of $10.4 billion, this stock will be perfect for both active traders and the more traditional “buy and hold” investor alike. But a closer inspection into the company’s statistics reveal both positive, and negative information that may change the way you look at this company. On the plus side of things, FSLR has a healthy cash flow of $555 million, with just $132 million in debt. Furthermore, FSLR has a current ratio of 2.97; a solid figure that will comfort most investors as it suggests that the company will have no trouble paying off any debts.

On the other side of things, a few key stats may concern some investors. First, the stock has a very high beta of 1.7, making it incredibly susceptible to market runs in either direction. The quarterly earnings growth (yoy) may also be of concern, as it is currently sitting at -32.7% (as of 7/25/2011). Another disturbing figure comes from taking a look at the short interest, while there are 86.16 million shares outstanding, there are 20.85 million held short; nearly 25% of the shares out in the market. Finally, investors should note that FSLR has a fairly high amount of shares held by insiders, nearly 35% of the total [also read Six Influential Academic Studies Every Commodity Investor Must Read].

Final Verdict

First Solar is a strong company with a good business plan, but that may not always pan out to gains from an investment standpoint. The current environment for solar is pretty bleak; with governments around the world trying to stay afloat with mounds of debt, solar energy is just about the last thing they will be spending money on, creating a foggy future. Also, note that the stock is relatively inconsistent, which may be attractive to some, and off-putting to others. If FSLR can meet their predicted costs outputs in the future, and become more competitive with more traditional fuels, investors could be in for a big gain, but in the meantime this stock will be a risky, but potentially very rewarding, component to your portfolio.

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Disclosure: Chart courtesy of Barchart. No positions at time of writing.

This entry was posted in Commodity Producers, Exclusive, Solar, Spotlight and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Commodity HQ is not an investment advisor, and any content published by Commodity HQ does not constitute individual investment advice. The opinions offered herein are not personalized recommendations to buy, sell or hold securities or investment assets. Read the full disclaimer here.

6 Responses to “Company Spotlight: First Solar (FSLR)”

  1. [...] The past few months have been something of a roller coaster ride for major equities, as investor confidence has declined along with broad markets. During times like these, finding returns for your portfolio can be next to impossible, as certain assets will be up one day only to be slaughtered the next. Commodity investors may be especially confused with market performance, as the recent erratic sessions for the U.S. dollar seem to be tossing futures contracts back and forth on a daily basis.But for those looking to find gains in the commodity space, there are still lucrative options out there that offer strong opportunities, particularly those that are offer high yields. Most commodity investors aren’t too concerned with yield, as a fair amount of them tend to be active traders; moving in and out of futures positions multiple times a day. After all, futures contracts are not meant for “buy and hold” investors. Active traders can still profit from a volatile environment such as this, but it is the uncertainty on a daily basis that makes it hard to make the right call on a particular commodity [see also Company Spotlight: First Solar (FSLR)]. [...]

  2. [...] When it comes time to make a gold allocation, however, investors have a wide variety of options. They can purchase futures, physically-backed ETFs, or the stocks of mining companies whose underlying revenues come from the exploration and extraction of the respective commodity. As far as gold is concerned, few miners have more respect, or size, than Barrick Gold Corporation. The company was founded in 1983, went public on the NYSE on 1987, and is the largest gold mining company in the world. Headquartered in Toronto, the company currently has operations in countries all over the globe including Australia, Peru, and Tanzania [see also Company Spotlight: First Solar (FSLR)]. [...]

  3. [...] After enduring a miserable 2010, most investors were pleased to see solar hit the ground running this year, as a number of equities tied to this industry enjoyed double digit gains for several months. But as the year progressed, solar stocks quickly began to reverse their winning ways, dragging them even lower than where many had been at last year. These extreme losses come as a thorn in investors’ side, especially given that solar energy is arguably the fastest growing renewable energy in the world. Last year saw the overall industry grow by nearly 73%, leading to an average annual growth of 39% over the last decade [see also Company Spotlight: First Solar (FSLR)]. [...]

  4. [...] These extreme losses come as a thorn in investors’ side, especially given that solar energy is arguably the fastest growing renewable energy in the world. Last year saw the overall industry grow by nearly 73%, leading to an average annual growth of 39% over the last decade. (See also: “Company Spotlight: First Solar.”) [...]

  5. [...] Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR): One of the largest solar firms out there, First Solar is based in Arizona, and has a market cap of more than $1.8 billion. FSLR has lost approximately [...]

  6. [...] has been burned. In 2011, solar was down over 60% and down another 30% in 2012,  but this year First Solar may have finally turned things around for this dying industry [for more alternative energy news and [...]

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