First Solar takes strategic step into residential solar market


Vertically integrated thin-film specialist First Solar has secured an equity stake in Clean Energy Collective (CEC), a company that specializes in the development of small-scale community solar farms.

The move signals First Solar’s first direct foray into the U.S. residential market, with the company confirming in a press statement that the "strategic partnership" will develop and market community solar offerings to residential customers and businesses on behalf of client utilities.

Clean Energy Collective, based in Colorado, is the leading developer of community solar projects in the U.S., and specializes in sub-5 MW installations that feed directly into the grid. The community aspect allows individual customers to purchase stakes in the solar farms and use the power generated to offset their own monthly bills.

The scheme is particularly popular among rental tenants and those that reside in high-rise buildings and thus lack their own rooftop of property ownership.

First Solar’s CEO Jim Hughes told Bloomberg that the company had analyzed the residential solar market and decided to back the community model. "Less than a quarter of U.S. households are suitable for rooftop solar systems, and the community model offers them a way to invest in renewable energy," said Hughes.

"I believe that community solar will be bigger than rooftop. It is better for the utility and costs less to build."

Details on the size of First Solar’s stake in Clean Energy Collective were not forthcoming, but Hughes did reveal that First Solar will occupy two seats on the collective’s board. Hughes and First Solar VP of strategic marketing, Marc van Gerven, will sit on the board.

First Solar said in its press statement that the move is "an integral part of [our] distributed generation strategy", and one that "substantially strengthens the company’s entry as a solutions provider in the residential and business solar markets". The partnership with CEC is intended to accelerate the rollout of community solar in the U.S., aided by First Solar’s hardware solutions, chiefly their thin-film modules.

"Distributed generation in the form of community solar expands the addressable market dramatically beyond the traditional residential or commercial sectors, and CEC has led the way in making that happen," said Hughes.

CEC’s ground-mounted solar farms could prove a lucrative outlet for First Solar’s modules, particularly now the company has ramped up production at its Perrysburg fab in Ohio. The company has also recently augmented its manufacturing capacity in Malaysia, and so will be able to produce its modules at lower cost and avoid the anti-dumping tariffs that have bedeviled Chinese and Taiwanese module manufacturers when dealing with the U.S. market in 2014.

Hughes added that First Solar’s expertise in utility-scale generation and panel technology was a perfect fit with CEC’s residential experience, stating that this collaboration will further establish community solar as a "critical part of the global energy mix for all markets".

The community model used by CEC enables investors to pay around $800 – $1,000 for a solar panel in its arrays, with the investment paying off within 8-12 years. A strike price is paid in advance by the utilities, which is typically $0.09-$0.11/kWh.

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