First Solar results outshine rivals

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - First Solar Inc outshined rivals in the struggling solar power industry with earnings and revenue that blew past Wall Street estimates and sent its shares up more than 13 percent.

The results stood in sharp contrast to weak performances unveiled earlier in the day from solar players Renewable Energy Corp and Akeena Solar Inc, who have been hurt by plunging demand for solar panels due to a lack of available credit for new projects.

First Solar, whose cadmium telluride solar panels are cheaper to make than the silicon-based cells that dominate the market, said its profit more than tripled in the first quarter as it was able to cut manufacturing costs and expand margins.

Prices on First Solar solar panels have also not experienced the dramatic declines seen in silicon-based panels, whose makers have struggled with falling margins. A flood of solar panels in the market due to the credit crisis and a pullback in solar subsidies in Spain has driven selling prices on silicon-based panels down markedly since late last year.

"I am struggling to find a comparable company that was a leader in its industry and managed to dodge the bullet that is killing every other company in the space — maybe GE during the Jack Welch years," said Kaufman Bros analyst Theodore O'Neill, who has a "sell" rating on First Solar shares.

"Gross profit margins were up sequentially in a large way, which also just makes this hard to fathom in the environment that we are in," O'Neill said.

First Solar said first-quarter revenue more than doubled from last year and margins rose to 56.3 percent from 53.9 percent in the previous quarter. The company also maintained its revenue outlook for the year.

Meanwhile, Norway's REC posted a 29 percent drop in quarterly core earnings, lagging analysts' forecasts. The solar-grade silicon maker also said it did not expect global solar markets to pick up until the economy recovered.

REC shares rose 8.9 percent, however, after Chief Executive Ole Enger told a presentation that the company would find financing solutions despite the challenging market.

"Management were pretty convincing. Confidence is slowly coming back," analyst Anders Rosenlund at ABG Sundal Collier said of the REC results, adding that investor expectations were low before the report.

Also, U.S. solar systems installer Akeena Solar posted a wider-than-expected quarterly loss and said it expected second-quarter revenue to be flat to down slightly from last year.

Akeena shares fell 4 cents to close at $1.06 on the Nasdaq.

First Solar's results were markedly different from those of U.S. rival SunPower Corp, which reported an unexpected quarterly net loss and slashed its 2009 outlook.

In addition, First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said he would abandon the CEO post to focus on policy issues as the company's executive chairman.

"This is a natural evolution for me and the company," Ahearn told analysts on a conference call. "I've been in this role for going on 10 years. This gives us an opportunity to broaden the team."

First Solar has been a favorite among alternative energy investors since it went public in 2006. Nevertheless, the Tempe, Arizona company's stock has lost more than 52 percent of its value since hitting a lifetime high of $317 last May.

Earlier this month, First Solar bought the project pipeline of privately held rival OptiSolar for $400 million in stock in a bid to expand its presence in the U.S. market for utility-scale solar plants.


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