First Solar Vulnerable to a Tellurium Shortage?

| About: First Solar, (FSLR)

First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ:FSLR) is a solar panel manufacturer. Its sole business is production of CdTe based solar panels. Its stock price has rallied about 10 fold since the IPO about a year ago.

I believe FSLR stock is overpriced. Moreover, this company has weak future prospects if you understand the fundamentals of its business. That's because it relies on cadmium telluride as its raw material. Cadmium is extremely toxic, but the mildly toxic tellurium is lethal to FSLR. FSLR is extremely vulnerable due to a possible shortage and price run on tellurium. It could find itself in trouble in a few years due to competing demands on tellurium.

Tellurium, the 52nd element, is extremely rare on earth, rarer even than platinum, the 78th element, according to Web Elements. Tellurium's crust abundance is 1 pbb versus 37 ppb for platinum (pbb is "parts per billion"). Tellurium is mainly produced as a byproduct from the anode slime accumulated during copper refining. But not all copper mines contain significant amounts of tellurium. Chile produces 1/3 of the world's copper but virtually nothing in tellurium. According to USGS and Arizona State Geologist Lee Allison, the world produces anywhere from 160 to 215 metric tons of tellurium a year.

Tellurium was traditionally used in metal alloys and other uses. Demand from emerging new applications, like DVD discs, digital camera, computer flash memory and CPU thermoelectric cooling, among other things, has caused a severe shortage in recent years, and drove the price from below $4 a pound to over $100 in 2006, according to Lee Allison. Jack Lifton on Resource Investor suggested that investors could sense the shortage and start to hoard physical tellurium, adding fuel to the fire and causing a huge tellurium price run.

How much tellurium does FSLR use? They use about 7 grams of cadmium and about 8 grams of tellurium in each of the 2 feet x 4 feet CdTe solar panel. That's roughly 135 metric tons per each 1 giga watt (GW) of products. They have signed a bunch of sales contracts with per watt price fixed and mandated to go down 6.5% yearly, and they are aggressively building new factories and expanding production capacity. After finishing a new factory in Germany, they are building four brand-new factories in Malaysia.

Alright, they have plenty of customers, plenty of sales contracts to keep them busy for five or six years, and Malaysia has plenty of land for them to build new factories. The growth potential looks unlimited. That's why investors bid up FSLR stock price like crazy.

But, where are they going to obtain all the new tellurium supplies needed for future expansion, at a price cheap enough to ensure profitability, and a quantity large enough to keep the new factories running? On Nov. 8, 2007, the CFO publicly commented that "we [FSLR] have identified terawatts levels of tellurium availability." He seemed to have no idea what he was talking about. One terrawatt is 1000 GW. Nowhere on earth does this amount of tellurium even exist underground, let alone available in a secret vault somewhere.

FSLR has a very dark future ahead for itself if a tellurium rush occurs as expected.

Full disclosure: I am short FSLR and I plan to invest in physical tellurium metal ingots.

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