First Solar to Face Wall Street Questions After Brown Leaves

First Solar Inc. (FSLR), the biggest maker of thin-film solar modules, will issue its forecast for 2013 sales to analysts and investors tomorrow, after announcing today the departure of the executive who led its global effort to build utility-scale power plants with its panels.

James Brown, executive vice president for global business development, is leaving the company effective today, the Tempe, Arizona-based company said in a regulatory filing.

First Solar has been completing power plants faster than new contracts have come in, and it’s not clear whether the company will be able to keep its project pipeline full, said Rob Stone, an analyst at Cowen & Co. in Boston. Building and selling large solar farms accounts for about two-thirds of sales.

“There’s enough in their pipeline to keep factories full this year, but 2014 is a cause for concern,” said Stone, who plans to attend the day-long meeting in New York tomorrow. “They’re flying over the ocean and nobody seems to know whether there’s enough fuel to get across.”

Chief Executive Officer Jim Hughes ended 2012 with contracts that will provide $8 billion in expected revenue from solar power plants, down from $9.4 billion a year earlier, and said on a Feb. 26 conference call that he expects to maintain that figure this year.

Revenue last year rose 22 percent to $3.37 billion as it sold some power plants and began work on new ones. Even with those construction projects under way, sales may decline this year to $3.13 billion, the average of 23 analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Production Costs

Analysts are also looking for details on First Solar’s expenses. The company reported production costs of 68 cents a watt in the fourth quarter, down from 73 cents a year earlier.

“I would like to hear about how they reduce cost without significant capital expenditures and why Chinese competition won’t just decimate new markets,” said Ben Schuman, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities LLC in Portland, Oregon.

First Solar rose 2.3 percent to $27.04 at the close in New York. The shares have slumped 12 percent this year.

First Solar has about 1,800 megawatts of panel production capacity, mainly in Malaysia and the U.S.

(The analyst meeting begins at 9 a.m. in New York and will continue to 4 p.m. To listen to a webcast, go to the company’s site at http://investor.firstsolar.com/events.cfm)

To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Martin in New York at cmartin11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net

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