Thursday, April 30, 2009

FSLR; The Betamax of Solar?

FSLR announced their earnings today. The results were great, particularly considering the overall economy.

I've given FSLR considerable thought in the last couple years, and I remain convinced that they have unspeakable future problems. On their investor relations page, they link to the pdf associated with their Q1 conference call. In it, they mention what they consider to be risks to their business, but nowhere do they mention the risk associated with availability of their critical Tellurium supply. Ok, so maybe they have it all figured out; but nobody's asking, and nobody's telling.

Ok, I don't know, but I want to get an idea of what kind of supply issue they're up against, so I've gathered some info.

Per Greentech Media, FSLR uses 6 grams of Tellurium per square meter. (See.)

Per First Solar, the FS-277 Module is .72m2 and has a peak power of 77.5W. (See.)

77.5W / .72m2 = 107.64W/m2

So, at 6 grams / m2, the amount of Tellurium required per Watt works out to be 6g / 107.64W = .056 g/W.

Well, we know that FSLR is aiming for a bit over a GW in annual production for '09 and '10, so rounding to 1GW gives roughly 55.7 Metric Tons of Tellurium required to produce that GW of modules.

The question, then, is how much Tellurium is out there, and what does it cost?

According to the USGS, the price has ranged from $41,800/MT in 2004 to
$82,000/MT in 2007. The World Supply of Tellurium according to US Geological Survey was 132MT in 2006.

Ah, no problem. If they're using 55MT to produce 1W worth of modules, and they're paying even the high price of $82,000/MT for their supply, then they're only paying a total of $4.5 Million for their entire yearly supply of Tellurium. That's less than a penny per Watt. In fact, during the CC, Jesse Peechel stated, quite possibly accurately, that First Solar's largest cost was glass.

Wait, a problem. Solar is big. A sensible look at the required future scale of Solar Energy puts the annual Global installation rate to be around 30GWp per year by just 2012. What if FSLR wants to maintain a significant share in this market?

Well, as it is today, it appears that over a third of the World's Tellurium supply is required for the production of a single Gigawatt of First Solar modules.
If FSLR were to take 10% of that market, they'd have to produce 3GW of modules, which by today's efficiencies would require 165MT of Tellurium, or more Tellurium than the World produced in 2006! Well, maybe the price of Tellurium is a pittance when the company is demanding only a third of the World supply of material, but I can guarantee that it won't remain so when that company is demanding 33MT MORE than the World's annual supply.

A big part of this problem is that there's no such thing as a Tellurium mine. Tellurium is only produced as a byproduct of mining other commodities, such as Copper. This means that it's very difficult to increase the World Supply independently of the supply of those other materials. If you were to mine Tellurium alone, the cost would be astronomical, and yet if you were to drive up the mining activity in Tellurium's sister elements, then you'd have the affect of driving down the prices of those materials, thus making them into less desirable targets for mining.

What about efficiency gains? Sure, if FSLR is able to pull off a tripling, or even just a doubling of their efficiency, then they could make do with dramatically less material. I can imagine several possible ways that they could do this, but I suspect that it will be a tough path. As it stands, per the CC pdf, FSLR has increased the conversion efficiency of their product by .3% since Q1 of '08. That's simply not going to cut it, particularly if you look out past 2012 when the market gets even larger.

I don't know. They have some very smart people there, and they're working hard in an exciting industry. The particular technology just doesn't seem to stack up to me, though, and like I said, nobody is asking questions and nobody is volunteering answers.

Ah well, in the short term, I'm quite certain that they are going to do great. Wall Street loves them, and they have excellent margins for the time being. They very well might be able to leverage some of that temporary financial advantage in order to open up new technologies to their benefit, so we'll see.

All that said, I'm not short FSLR, and I suspect that to go short FSLR would be a very bad plan.

Also, a final note, it's pretty obvious that I think that the strongest players at this time are out of China, but it's not that I don't like some US Companies. I really like Applied Materials, and Sunpower to name a couple of domestic players.

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