First Solar Inc. (FSLR) is a provider of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy solutions that is involved in designing, producing and marketing PV solar modules with a thin-film semiconductor technology. The company prides itself in having successfully installed more than 10 gigawatts (GW) globally, and claims to have expertise across the entire solar value chain and integration of related technology. Here’s a quick look at the history of the company. (For more, see: Top 3 Solar Stocks for 2017.)

First Solar History

The company was founded in the year 1999 by Harold McMaster who is ranked among the greatest experts on tampered glass technology. Owing to his increased interest in solar technology during the 1980s, McMaster started experimenting with various methods to integrate photovoltaic materials on glass. His aim was to develop low-cost, thin film cells on a mass scale so as to capitalize on opportunities in the solar energy production market.

After early experiments with amorphous silicon and then with cadmium-telluride (CdTe) based photovoltaic modules, McMaster founded Solar Cells Inc. in 1990. Following a bumpy financial ride during early years, the company was sold in 1999 to True North Partners, a venture capital firm belonging to the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame. The company’s name was changed to First Solar following the acquisition.

The newly reformed company started manufacturing commercial products and solar modules in 2002. It managed to reach an annual production capacity of 25 megawatts (MW) by 2005, which was followed by achieving another crucial landmark of 1 gigawatts (GW) production in 2009. It made First Solar the largest PV module producer in the world.

While the company started with a lower efficiency of around 7% for solar modules during the early years, the efficiency was scaled up to record levels of 18.2% for CdTe thin film solar modules and 22.1% for cells. In 2009, First Solar achieved a major milestone of reducing the cost per watt to less than a dollar, which eventually got reduced to 68 cents in 2013.

The company founded its first factory in Ohio, which was followed by setting up another production plant in Germany. In 2007, it forayed into Asian markets by setting up a plant in Malaysia. By 2010, the Malaysian plant was expanded into six different plants in the country making it a big production facility outside of the U.S. Around the same time, First Solar expanded its Ohio facility which helped it exceed its production capacity above 1 GW. Today, the company operates a capacity of more than 13.5 GW.

Business Operations History

During the initial years of its operations, the company marketed its products to independent solar power generators and solar project developers. First Solar benefited from big sales in Germany as the European country then offered many perks to promote use of solar energy through dedicated programs. However, it led to a dependency on government offered subsidies for the company. Clubbed with uncertainty and decline in billing rates, the company shifted its focus to other markets including China, India and the U.S. Instead of banking on government offered perks, the company now competes head-on with conventional power producers. (For more, see also: Will Solar Tariffs Help or Hurt Industry Leaders?)

Between the years 2007 and 2015, the company successfully managed to develop advanced grid integration, plant control, forecasting and energy scheduling capabilities. It helped it develop the world’s largest contracted solar project pipeline that exceeded 3 GW capacity. The company also engineered and constructed two of the largest PV power plants in the world that have more than 2 GW of capacity, and facilitated the funding for around 2 GW production which represented a market value of around $9 billion.

The company restructured its global business during mid-2010 to address the needs of the large-scale PV systems solutions market, and formed a utility systems segment. During the last five years, the company has successfully entered into the energy solutions space by decreasing costs and fuel utilization with PV/diesel hybrid system solutions.

The success of First Solar is based on its secret production process. CNET reports that “the company has developed a process with its own machinery that can churn out high volumes of cells. What's more, the company can replicate those factories to rapidly expand capacity.”

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