First Solar is sitting pretty

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From pv magazine USA.

There are those who say that, given the ongoing ability of Chinese manufacturers to keep cutting costs for crystalline silicon, no other technology can compete in the long run. But if there is an end in sight for U.S.-based First Solar, it didn’t show up in the company’s fourth-quarter and full year results.

The manufacturer appears to be on top of its game and has completed the bulk of its transition to the new, large-format Series 6 module, with its second factory in Vietnam coming online in the first two months of this year, to add to factories in Ohio and Malaysia.

This year, the company expects to ship around 5.5 GW of PV modules and even at that volume, CEO Mark Widmar estimates stock is “fully sold out” through the end of next year and First Solar’s current 12 GW of bookings includes shipments scheduled through 2023.

The company shipped 900 MW of product in the final three months of last year and while it did not break figures down between its Series 4 and Series 6 products, what is clear was that the latter is being used almost entirely for projects First Solar develops and builds.

Step up in production capacity

Revenues and profitability were also not bad for a company that is still retooling; it raised $691 million during the last quarter, and managed to eke out a 1.6% operating margin and net income of $52 million.

Over the course of last year, the company’s revenue and profitability was similar as First Solar burned through around $440 million of its war chest, retaining a healthy $2.5 billion in cash and equivalents at the end of 2018.

As the company moved into this year it expected shipments to pick up as factories ramp. First Solar’s new 1.2 GW fab in Ohio is not set to come online until the end of the year but when it does, it will give the business more than 7 GW of annual capacity, making it one of the largest PV makers on the planet.

That would also give First Solar the ability to support more third-party sales of the Series 6 and the company expects 45% of shipments to go to third parties by the fourth quarter of this year.

First Solar also sees unit costs continue to fall with the ramping of its factories, as well as efficiency gains. The Series 6 is already offered with ratings as high as 445 W, and First Solar noted that the average wattage output per module rose by 10 W from October to this month.

However, First Solar did appear to miss its Q4 2018 guidance and lowered its 2019 margin estimate slightly, with Widmar citing “minor adjustments to ramp and start-up costs”.

First Solar still expects to bring in $3.25-3.45 billion this year, with positive margins and a net cash balance – despite $110-130 million in production start-up and ramping costs.