First Solar’s Buried Opportunity: By Looking Down, Things May Be Looking Up

Many mining companies are spending less time focusing on the ground and a little more time looking up, believing that solar solutions may be the best way to address rising energy prices. And, it seems that First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR  ) is one of the first American solar companies looking to take advantage.

Source: First Solar

The beginning of a beautiful friendship 
Last week at the World Future Energy Summit, First Solar revealed plans to pursue opportunities with mining operations. In an interview with Mining Weekly, John Eccles, fuel replacement solutions director for First Solar, said that the company was in advanced discussions with multinational mining groups, specifically in Australia and Africa.

Why make the switch? Eccles claims that the business of custom-designed solar facilities is "a new field globally and is being driven by the fact that, over the past five years, PV solar power prices have halved, while diesel fuel costs have generally increased. Over the past 12 months changes to those critical parameters have made hybrids viable."

First Solar is already picking up market share in Australia. It recently began construction on what will be the largest solar power facility, 102 MW, in the country. Providing over 1.3 million thin-film PV panels for the project, First Solar expects the facility located in Nyngan, New South Wales to be operational by mid-2015 .

Following the yellow brick road           
One mining company that is paving the way toward adopting solar is Sibanye Gold (NYSE: SBGL  ) , which claims to be the largest producer of gold in South Africa and one of the largest in the world. Last October, the company's CEO, Neal Froneman, in an interview with Bloomberg, revealed that Sibanye Gold is considering the construction of a 10 MW solar power plant to combat rising electricity costs. How significant is the increasing cost of electricity? The company's electricity costs have risen 60% since 2007, despite the company's 16% reduction in electricity consumption. "We're just at the point where the cost of photovoltaic cells now starts crossing over with the cost of electricity from Eskom," Froneman said.

Around the globe                     
Mining companies in South Africa aren't the only ones looking for solar solutions. SunEdison (NYSE: SUNE  ) expects to complete its Amanecer Solar CAP project during Q1 2014. The 100 MW photovoltaic, or PV, project is the largest PV project to reach this stage of completion in Latin America. Comprised of more than 300,000 SunEdison PV modules, the facility will provide electricity to Chilean mining company CAP SA.

Also in Chile, Energía Llaima and Sunmark A/S have commenced construction on a solar thermal plant, which will provide power for a northern Chile copper mine operation. According to the Chilean Ministry of Mines, the solar facility will produce enough power to replace 85% of the diesel that is currently used in the mine's operations.

There are obstacles to overcome when combing solar projects and mining operations, like market prices for that which is being mined. One such example is Atacama Minerals, a mining company owned by Canadian company Sirroco, which had been planning to begin operations at Agua Blancas, an 8.8 MW solar farm, by July of this year. However, construction had to be delayed due to the fact that the company had to suspend operations due to falling iodine prices.

Foolish final thoughts              
Although First Solar is up nearly 70% over the past year, shares are trading roughly 18% lower than its 52-week high. For investors who have been considering opening a position in the company, does this provide an opportunity for entry? I'd say possibly. The company's Q4 earnings report, set to be released in a few weeks, will certainly provide a clearer picture on how the company is operating. I am impressed, though, with the company's interest in exploring new opportunities, like the mining sector. As always, investors must dig deeper to see if First Solar is right for their portfolios.

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