First Solar, Inc. is an American photovoltaic (PV) manufacturer of rigid thin film modules, or solar panels, and a provider of utility-scale PV power plants and supporting services that include finance, construction, maintenance and end-of-life panel recycling. First Solar uses cadmium telluride (CdTe) as a semiconductor to produce CdTe-panels, that are competing successfully with conventional crystalline silicon technology. In 2009, First Solar became the first solar panel manufacturing company to lower its manufacturing cost to $1 per watt and produced CdTe-panels with an efficiency of about 14 percent at a reported cost of 59 cents per watt in 2013.
The company was founded in 1990 by inventor Harold McMaster as Solar Cells, Inc. and the Florida Corporation in 1993 with JD Polk. In 1999 it was purchased by True North Partners, LLC, who rebranded it as First Solar, Inc. The company went public in 2006, trading on the NASDAQ. Its current chief executive is Mark Widmar, who succeeded the previous CEO James Hughes July 1, 2016. First Solar is based in Tempe, Arizona. As of 2010, First Solar was considered the second-largest maker of PV modules worldwide and ranked sixth in Fast Company’s list of the world's 50 most innovative companies. In 2011, it ranked first on Forbes’s list of America’s 25 fastest-growing technology companies. It is listed on the Photovoltaik Global 30 Index since the beginning of this stock index in 2009. The company was also listed as No. 1 in Solar Power World magazine’s 2012 and 2013 rankings of solar contractors.
First Solar manufactures cadmium telluride (CdTe)-based photovoltaic (PV) modules, which produce electricity with a thin CdTe film on glass. First Solar created a world record-breaking cell with 21.5% efficiency in the laboratory, confirmed by NREL, in January, 2015 and a world record-breaking Thin-Film PV module with 18.6% efficiency, confirmed by NREL, in June, 2015.
Their distribution network for solar panels covers over 39 distributors and wholesalers, across over 12 different countries.
In 1984, inventor and entrepreneur Harold McMaster founded Glasstech Solar. McMaster foresaw the opportunity to manufacture low-cost, thin film cells on a large scale. After trying amorphous silicon, he shifted to CdTe at the urging of Jim Nolan and founded Solar Cells, Inc., (SCI) in 1990 and the Florida Corporation in 1993 with JD Polk. In February 1999, McMaster sold the company to True North Partners, an investment arm of the Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart. John T. Walton joined the Board of the new company, and Michael J. Ahearn of True North became the CEO of the newly minted First Solar. In its early years, First Solar module efficiencies were modest, about 7 percent.
First Solar launched production of commercial products in 2002 and reached an annual production of 25 megawatts (MW) in 2005. At the end of 2009, First Solar had surpassed an annual production rate of one gigawatt (GW) and was the largest PV module manufacturer in the world.
The company is headquartered in Tempe, Arizona and has manufacturing facilities in Perrysburg, Ohio and Kulim, Malaysia. Additionally, First Solar partnered with natural gas provider Enbridge to build the largest PV solar energy farm in the world, located in Sarnia, Ontario, near the Canada–US border.
In July 2010, First Solar formed a utility systems business group to address the large-scale PV systems solutions market. Utility systems are now the company's core business focus, with a strategy to focus on markets that do not require subsidies to support the solar generation business.
On April 17, 2012, First Solar announced it would restructure operations worldwide. This restructuring process included phasing out operations in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany and idling four production lines in Kulim, Malaysia. 30% of First Solar's workforce was laid off as a result of these actions, which were blamed on market volatility and reduced demand. Mark Widmar, the CFO of First Solar, said, "We need to resize our business to a level of demand that is highly reliable and predictable."
On July 1, 2016 Mark Widmar was appointed CEO of First Solar. Previously he had been Chief Financial Officer. Company founder and former CEO Mike Ahearn remains Chairman of the Board.
Historically, First Solar sold its products to solar project developers, system integrators, and independent power producers. Early sales were primarily in Germany because of strong incentives for solar enacted in the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) of 2000 (cp. Solar power in Germany). Declines and uncertainty in feed-in-tariff subsidies for solar power in European markets, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, prompted major PV manufacturers, such as First Solar, to accelerate their expansion into other markets, including the U.S., India and China.
Beginning in December 2011, First Solar has shifted away from existing markets that are heavily dependent on government subsidies and toward providing utility-scale PV systems in sustainable markets with immediate need. As a result, it now competes against conventional power generators, and has reduced its focus on the rooftop market.
On February 24, 2009, First Solar's cost per watt broke the $1 barrier, reaching $0.98. Production cost has continued to fall and in February 2013, reached $0.68 per watt.
In 2011, the company had 36 production lines with 2,376 megawatts of annual manufacturing capacity. Each line had a 66-megawatt capacity. The first factory was built in Ohio, followed by a four-line manufacturing plant in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. In April 2007, the firm announced the construction of a plant in Kulim Hi-Tech Park, Malaysia, which was expanded to six plants in 2010. In October 2008, the firm began an expansion of its facility in Perrysburg, Ohio, completed in 2010, which brought First Solar's global annual production capacity to 1,228 MW.
In the summer of 2009, the company announced plans to build its fourth production plant in France. In October 2010, First Solar announced it would build two new four-line manufacturing plants, one each in Vietnam and the United States. In November 2011 it postponed commissioning the Vietnam plant. In February 2012, it postponed commissioning of a new U.S. plant in Mesa, AZ until demand develops. In May 2012, four lines in Malaysia were shut down indefinitely and plans to shutter the facility in Germany were announced.
(Source: First Solar Financial Report for Quarter 1 2012 Earnings Call; "First Solar to Boost Production as Profit, Sales Climb," Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2012)
While First Solar witnessed record sales of over $3.37 billion in 2012, its restructuring efforts impacted the bottom line, leading to a net loss of $96.3 million – or $1.11 per share – for the year.
Historically, the low cost of First Solar’s modules has been the key to its market performance. The use of cadmium telluride instead of silicon allowed it to achieve a significantly lower module cost ($0.67 per watt), compared to crystalline-silicon PV, which averaged $1.85 per watt in 2010.
As the company shifts its focus away from module sales to utility-scale projects, it will need to become price competitive with non-solar power sources, a move which its executives say will require the company to reduce manufacturing costs and optimize efficiency.
In November 2012, First Solar announced that its manufacturing cost had fallen to 67 cents per watt, a 6-cent decrease from February 2012. By 2015, it expects to drive down cost per watt to make solar modules to between 52 and 54 cents. The biggest driver of the lower costs is better efficiency.
In a December 2012 RenewEconomy interview with First Solar CEO James Hughes, he made the following comments regarding Grid parity:
"Everyone wants to talk about “grid parity” – I’ve banned that phrase from the lexicon of First Solar. Electricity has value only at a point in time and a geographic place . There is no magic number that describes the true economic cost of electricity. You may have a tariff structure that describes it that way, but that is not the reality, and frankly, sophisticated power markets don’t operate like that. So you have to look at time of day, season and location to determine the true cost of power, and there are lots of times of day, seasons and locations where solar is economic today without subsidy. So our focus is to find those places, find those times of day, and find those market structures where we can apply ourselves."
First Solar had installed 1,505 MW of solar capacity as of 2012. Below are some of First Solar’s solar installations and development projects: