With a market potential of $2.2 trillion and the International Energy Agency estimating that $2.55 trillion/year will need to be spent on total energy and efficiency infrastructure through 2035, one can understand why Wall Street has fallen in love with these companies.
However, at The Motley Fool we believe in a long-term buy and hold strategy of great companies with strong growth prospects. This article will look at these three solar companies and attempt to answer the question: Can long-term investors still make money at these prices?
First Solar: profitable but too big to grow
First Solar is the largest solar company by market cap and production capacity, shipping 2.7 gigawatts (GW) of solar panels last year and guiding for 2.8 GW in 2014.
There are three main problems First Solar faces: its large size, inferior technology, and share dilution.
First Solar has just secured financing to build the largest solar project in Latin America, the Luz del Norte power plant in Chile, which will be 141 MW. In 2013 Chile's economy grew at 4.1% and it faces the challenge of expensive electricity. Its government has set a goal of 20% solar power generation by 2025 to help the economy grow while lowering power costs and cutting carbon emissions. The reason for such a bold goal? Chile is blessed with some of the best solar potential on earth with its Atakama desert experiencing the highest solar radiation levels on earth. First Solar won the contract because it uses Cadmium thin-film panels which handle extremes of temperature better than silicon panels.
But if First Solar is doing so well in a promising market like Chile, then why the negative earnings growth projections? The answer lies in scale. The Luz del Norte project is 141 MW, representing strong growth for Chile's solar industry, which installed just 150 MW in 2013.
However, given First Solar's massive scale, even a couple hundred MW won't move the needle and First Solar's thin-film panels are only 13.5% efficient compared to 21-23% for SunPower panels and 15-17% for SolarCity's panels.
Chile's extreme climate may call for thin-film panels, but the majority of the world cares more about efficiency, which directly affects cost.
Finally, First Solar, like SunPower and SolarCity, faces the problem of large share dilution.
As seen above, all three companies have high annual dilution rates:
- First Solar: 9.7%
- SunPower: 6.3%
- SolarCity: 13.8%