U.S. Markets open in 6 hrs 39 mins

First Solar shares fall on weak quarter

The Associated Press

First Solar Inc.'s shares tumbled Wednesday, after it reported disappointing quarterly earnings and announced that it is buying a competing thin-film solar panel technology from General Electric Co. in exchange for a stake in the company.

THE SPARK: First Solar said Tuesday that it will acquire GE's technology for making thin film panels. In return, GE will receive 1.75 million shares of First Solar stock, about 2 percent of First Solar's outstanding shares. GE's thin-film technology has performed well in lab tests, but is not manufactured at large scale.

The company also announced after the market closed that its net income for the second quarter fell 70 percent, to $34 million from $110 million a year ago. Revenue fell by 46 percent to $520 million. On a per-share basis the company earned 37 cents, down from $1.27 last year.

Analysts polled by FactSet had expected First Solar to earn 56 cents per share, on average.

THE BIG PICTURE: First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz., makes panels of thin metallic films that were once far and away the cheapest way to generate solar electricity. The technology is not as efficient at turning the sun's rays into electricity as traditional crystalline silicon panels, but it was so comparably cheap to manufacture that the overall cost of solar electricity was lower.

However, an oversupply of crystalline silicon manufacturing capacity, a reduction in global renewable energy subsidies and lower prices for the raw material for traditional panels sent prices for all panels plummeting. This helped make solar much more affordable for customers, but it eroded the price advantage of thin-film solar and eviscerated the profits of both First Solar and its crystalline silicon competitors.

General Electric, a leader in wind turbine manufacturing, began to dabble in solar when it acquired part of a small Colorado-based company called PrimeStar Solar in 2007. It later bought all of PrimeStar, which focused on the same type of thin film panels that First Solar makes.

GE announced in 2011 that it would build the nation's largest solar panel manufacturing plant, but last year put the plant on hold. Earlier this year, GE's panels set a record for thin film efficiency at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Co.

Now First Solar and GE hope that by combining their technology, they can increase the efficiency of the panels, which would have the effect of reducing the cost of the electricity they produce. The companies hope to regain the cost advantage of thin film over crystalline silicon.

First Solar also announced Tuesday that it would acquire a 1.5-gigawatt portfolio of solar farm development projects in the U.S. and Mexico from Element Power, which was owned by the clean energy private equity firm Hudson Clean Energy Partners. Terms were not disclosed.

THE ANALYSIS: Citi analyst Shahriar Pourreza said in a research note that the quarter was disappointing but the company should benefit from its relationship with General Electric. The analyst said the arrangement will improve the company's costs, efficiency and reach. The analyst also said the deal with Element Power expands booking opportunities. While noting that it remains a high-risk stock, given its high earnings and stock price volatility, he reiterated a "Buy" rating on the company's shares.

SHARE ACTION: Shares fell $6.15, more than 13 percent, to $40.61 by midday. It is still up almost 32 percent for the year.