Whether our world of consumerism likes it or not, the planet's stock of natural fuels is running out fast. Prices of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas are skyrocketing as supply plummets, and we can't afford to ignore this problem for much longer. While governments bicker and manufacturers struggle to keep costs down, the market has in fact been presented with an excellent opportunity. Demand for efficient green technology has never been higher, and it's firms such as the American company First Solar (FSLR) that are taking the lead in plugging this tremendous gap in the market.
First Solar is a provider of solar panels, components that utilize PV technology to transform natural light energy from the sun into useful forms of energy. You've probably seen these before - particularly in sunny areas, they can often be seen mounted on top of houses, hotels and other buildings to provide power for electricity. The company also provides a range of related services such as end-of-life solar panel recycling, construction and maintenance, for the most part to power plants using PV solar panels on a large scale.
Currently the second-largest worldwide manufacturer of PV solar panel modules, the key to the success of First Solar is in keeping production costs low. Back in 2009, it lowered its manufacturing costs to under one dollar per watt - the first PV manufacturing company to do so - and has since hammered costs down further to 73 cents per watt, through the exploitation of economies of scale and an emphasis on efficiency (reaching a level of 17.3% efficiency in 2011, which broke the former record in the field of renewable energy). First Solar uses cadmium telluride in place of silicon in PV production, which is the significantly cheaper option; dominating material suppliers in the industry has allowing it to retain this cost-saving advantage.
It's fair to say that First Solar has developed a strong position in the market - but change is in the air at the manufacturing company. At the end of 2011, it announced it would be revolutionizing its business strategy, moving focus away from supplying to customers that are funded in majority by the government and towards supplying to more free market players. I think this bold move is certainly one in the direction. The company is now aiming to enter the large-scale manufacturing market (and has already made significant groundwork) and provide PV solar panel systems to major manufacturers currently operating traditional power generators. Even with the likelihood that many firms will be reluctant to switch technologies due to the need for expensive investment, it is a move that they will inevitably have to make as fuel stocks run ever lower. When they do decide it is time, First Solar will be ready to meet their needs.
Of course, the picture isn't quite as simple as this. The company faces high competition from a number of PV solar panel producers, including industry-leading Chinese firm Suntech Power (STP). Suntech Power is currently the largest supplier of PV solar panels worldwide, having provided products to customers in over 80 countries. The company's base in China could give it a significant advantage over First Solar; labor costs are much lower, and it is also easier for firms to secure government funding for new investment projects. If Suntech Power also decides to make a move in the market towards a more commercial focus - which admittedly, doesn't seem likely, given the company's vast consumer clientele base - this could spell trouble for First Solar.
That said, low labor costs and investment funding aren't the most critical aspects of success in the solar panel production market. More important is potential for innovation, and a drive to, as an entrepreneurial company, move with market demand - First Solar has definitely shown it has this. I believe that even faced with high competition like Sharp (OTCPK:SHCAY), LDK Solar (LDK), and SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR), First Solar will succeed in its business ventures. As mentioned before, First Solar has the advantage of lower production costs, due to its use of cheaper raw materials used in place of silicon. This should give it the innovative edge it needs to get ahead.
The end quarter of 2011 saw an uncharacteristically poor market performance for First Solar; the company's stock value fell by around 20%. This movement is thought to be mainly due to the falling prices of solar panel units in the industry, reducing the company's potential profits. Uncertainty surrounding government subsidies for renewable energy projects also contributed to an overall fall in stock value over the year - 76%. When solar panel producer Solyndra declared bankruptcy in September, the market took a significant hit; the company had only recently secured government funding worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so prospects for future government investment looked bleak.
It is clear that First Solar, along with the majority of competing solar panel producers, did not enjoy a stellar market performance last year. But I don't think this spells bad news for current investors in the company, given its new revised position. It seems to have listened to market signals and adapted its business plan accordingly. What's more, in the coming decades it is guaranteed the demand for green technology will be huge. Even if firms aren't yet reaping the rewards of their investments, they will be soon - particularly if research leads to significant technological breakthroughs in the industry.
Sun Power for one is a firm that must watch out for the market actions of First Solar. As a competing company based in the US, where there is an abundance of mass manufacturers that could make use of PV technology, Sun Power should be putting significant thought into the direction of its business strategy.
Given the hit the PV solar panel industry took last years - which has led to the stock value of First Solar and other producers falling to below its actual worth - there is no time like to present to invest in green technology. Although it's unlikely record-breaking dividends will be distributed next year, there is a potential for massive returns further in the future. I highly recommend making a long term investment in First Solar. I am predicting that its stock value could rise exponentially in the coming decades.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.