Summary:

Things are looking up for First Solar, at least for now, as the company announced Wednesday a big jump in sales and profits for the second quarter and touted itself as a sought-after power project developer.

First Solar Electric, Agua Caliente Site, Yuma, AZ

Things are looking up for First Solar, at least for now, as the company announced Wednesday a big jump in sales and profits for the second quarter and touted itself as a sought-after power project developer.

“We have more investors seeking to buy projects than we have to sell them,” said James Hughes, who became First Solar’s CEO earlier this year, during a conference call with analysts. “We have more than 10 bidders vying to purchase the Campo Verde project.” The company announced the 139 MW Campos Verde project in California only shortly before it released its earnings.

Hughes’ positive note was accompanied by good financial results: First Solar posted $957 million in sales for the second quarter, nearly doubling the $532.8 million in sales from the year-ago period. First Solar posted about $111 million in net income, or $1.27 per share, for the second quarter, compared with $61.1 million in net income, or $0.70 per share from the same quarter in 2011.

The company’s shares shot up nearly 20 percent to $17.65 per share during after-market trading.

The good news from First Solar reflected the company’s shift to focus more on its power plant development business and less on selling solar panels to distributors and other buyers. The company explained this new focus back in May, when its executives unveiled a 5-year plan that the company hopes will set itself apart from its rivals and generate fatter profits.

First Solar has struggled along with just about every solar panel manufacturer in the world to survive a market with a serious imbalance of supply and demand for the past year and a half. Many companies have filed for bankruptcies or at least shut down factories. Worldwide, solar panel makers are set to deliver 59 MW of their products in 2012 when demand will more likely be about 30 GW, GTM Research said in June.

As a solar bellwether, First Solar’s performance and strategy provide a good view of industry trends. The company was strictly a solar panel maker for years before it bought a project development business in late 2007. The idea was to build solar projects in order to increase the sales of its solar panels, for which it has built a reputation as a leading low-cost manufacturer.  Since then, First Solar has become one of the largest solar project developers in North America. It’s in the midst of building several large solar farms, including two projects of 550 MW each in California and another 230 MW in the same state. Overall, it’s currently building about 2 GW of projects in North America and Australia.

But the solar manufacturing business has become super competitive, especially with the rise of giant Chinese solar panel makers that often receive hefty financial and other support from their government. Plus, the global solar market has been growing largely as a result of generous government subsidies, particularly in Europe, and those subsidies are declining.

Over the past year, First Solar executives have often talked about their plans to enter new markets that can grow without the need of big government subsidies. The Middle East appears to be one of the destinations because oil-rich countries now prefer to sell their oil for good profits instead of burning it for electricity generation at home. Building new markets takes time, however, and Hughes said Wednesday that the company’s efforts to conquer those new territories are still “nascent.”

The company isn’t abandoning subsidized markets though. India is one of them. First Solar has been selling solar panels to Indian project developers, but it wants to build projects there as well. The company is working on joint venture deals in India and other countries, Hughes said but declined to divulge more details.

First Solar has increased its 2012 guidance: $3.6 billion to $3.9 billion in sales instead of $3.5 billion to $3.8 billion. Earnings should reach $4.20-$4.70 per share, instead of $4-$4.50 per share (excluding special charges). The company expects to produce 1.8 GW to 1.9 GW of solar panels this year.

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