First Solar certainly had a big year in 2014, working harder to keep up with demand for its solar cells by hiring more workers in Ohio and making plans to increase its capacity in Malaysia as well. But the year was an important one for most solar companies, not just First Solar.
So what did First Solar accomplish last year and what’s on tap for this year? If 2014 was any indication, 2015 could bring another bumpy ride for First Solar shares.
First Solar focuses on emerging markets
Aside from news about expansion efforts, many reports from the solar industry last year were about new projections in emerging markets, and First Solar is no different. Trefis analysts, in a report dated Jan. 2, 2014, noted that the focus on emerging markets is important because U.S. contracts in the industry are expected to decelerate. Several of the nation’s biggest utility companies already have contracted the projects they need in order to “meet their renewable energy portfolio standards,” the analysts wrote.
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Recently First Solar announced its first independent project in India, which will amount to 45 megawatts. The company also began working on the 141-megawatt power plant it had planned in Luz del Norte and is preparing to fulfill its agreement for another power plant project in Jordan. First Solar agreed to provide its expertise and construction for the Shams Ma’an plant, which will be 52.5 megawatts in size.
The Trefis team doesn’t think First Solar will find opportunities that are as lucrative as its U.S. projects in emerging markets, but they say such projects are important for sustainable growth. Emerging markets often have fairly high electricity prices and good levels of solar radiation, thus making solar power an obviously good choice for their economies.
Emerging markets to remain important in 2015
Indeed, the solar industry is becoming increasingly competitive, and since the industry is in its early days, First Solar and its competitors are racing to become the dominant force. The world’s emerging markets are up for grabs and offer significant opportunities for First Solar. As a result, 2015 will likely bring more announcements about agreements and projects in these markets.
Trefis analysts estimate that First Solar’s potential booking opportunities as of the third quarter of 2014 were around 13 to 17 gigawatts. They say nearly one-third of those opportunities are in emerging markets like India, Latin America and the Middle East.
Will First Solar keep setting efficiency records?
This past year, First Solar has managed to achieve efficiency milestones with its photo-voltaic solar panels before its competitors, and it seems likely that the trend will continue. The company’s average efficiency was about 14.2% as of the third quarter, which is an improvement of 0.9% since the previous year, according to the Trefis team.
First Solar should continue making efficiency gains a priority this year because, as Trefis points out, greater efficiency makes its solar panels more competitive, particularly in the rooftop solar market. Customers who want to pack as much power as possible into a limited space will likely opt for First Solar’s panels rather than those made by competitors. In addition, the firm’s analysts believe greater efficiency will reduce the company’s manufacturing costs because they should need smaller amounts of materials per watt.
The company expects to boost the efficiency of its panels over 19% by 2017. By the end of this year, First Solar expects its solar PV panels to have an efficiency rate that’s just as good as poly-crystalline panels. If the solar panel maker can achieve these targets, it stands an excellent chance of becoming the dominant player in the global solar industry. This year offers a key benchmark for First Solar.
What’s ahead for First Solar stock in 2015?
Shares of First Solar dipped as much as 3% during regular trading hours today. The company’s shares didn’t perform well in Friday’s trading either, even though the stock finished off 2014 relatively strong despite ending the year lower than it began the year. In the last quarter of 2014 alone, First Solar shares plunged by more than 35%, although they were fairly stable last month. As of now, the stock is trading significantly lower than its 52-week high.
So will the stock recover this year? Baird analysts are bullish on First Solar, naming it their top solar pick for the year, although they slashed their price target from $87 to $62 per share. Analyst Ben Kallo said sentiment on the company is so low right now because it focuses on utility-scale projections. Much of the growth in the solar industry has been on the residential side, which is one of the reasons Wall Street turned sour on First Solar last year.
Any upcoming catalysts for First Solar?
In terms of catalysts, Kallo isn’t expecting anything too remarkable out of First Solar. His suggestions are basically more of what the company did in the past year, which are improve the efficiency of its panels, cut costs and enter new markets.
He also suggests the company’s next analyst day could boost its shares, particularly if management provides more details about potential plans to start a yieldco, which many other solar companies did in 2014. First Solar delayed the decision about whether to start its own yieldco until this year.
It certainly seems likely that a decision on this front is coming soon, with the company expected to follow the broader industry’s trend.