First Solar seeks 5.5 gigawatts of sales to fill pipeline

First Solar Inc. (FSLR), the largest U.S. solar manufacturer by shipments, said it’s pursuing as much as 5.5 gigawatts of prospective sales, mainly in the Americas, after its pipeline of orders was unchanged in the first quarter.

The company reported $8 billion in expected revenue at the end of the first quarter, unchanged from the end of December, Chief Executive Officer Jim Hughes said during a conference call yesterday.

The company expects results in the second half of the year to be better than in the first half, reversing an earlier forecast, as it acquires new solar farms that will use its panels. Of the 5.5 gigawatts of potential orders, about 700 megawatts comes from mid- to late-stage projects that are nearing construction, Hughes said.

“We are focusing on replenishing our pipeline in 2014 and beyond,” Hughes said.

That includes projects in Chile, Canada and a “steady diet” of stranded solar projects that developers can’t complete in California and elsewhere in the U.S. Southwest, he said. The company forecasts its results using expected revenue from panels it will install at solar farms it’s developing and contracted sales to other developers.

Sales Increase

Net income in the quarter was $59.1 million, or 66 cents a share, compared with a year-earlier loss of $449 million, or $5.20 a share, the Tempe, Arizona-based company said in a statement after the close of regular trading yesterday. Sales climbed 52 percent to $755.2 million. Excluding some one-time expenses related to restructuring, earnings of 69 cents a share were six cents less than the average of 17 analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

The shortfall in the quarter isn’t as important as the company’s long-term prospects, said Sanjay Shrestha, an analyst at Lazard Capital Markets LLC in New York.

“We weren’t so focused on the quarter, as numbers will be lumpy due to the nature of project development,” Shrestha said in an interview. “The big story here really is, they continue to execute.” He has a buy rating on the shares and a $60 price target.
First Solar shares climbed 3.7 percent to $47.69 at the close in New York yesterday. They have gained 55 percent this year.

Expanding Pipeline

Hughes, who joined the company a year ago, is seeking to expand its pipeline of utility-scale solar farms under development. First Solar’s shift to building and selling large projects is driving profits while most of its competitors are losing money by focusing on selling panels.

The company reiterated its forecast of sales of $3.8 billion to $4 billion this year. That will generate 2013 income of $4 to $4.50 a share.

Hughes is also steering the company into new regions including Japan, which is expected to become the second-largest solar market this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. First Solar agreed in April to acquire TetraSun, a startup developing high-efficiency solar panels designed for rooftop systems on homes and businesses. Initial sales are expected to begin next year in Japan.