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This Week in Solar

By Travis Hoium - Apr 30, 2016 at 1:08PM

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First Solar's new leader, SunPower's big partnerships, and Trina Solar's latest record.

Image source: SunPower.

Solar earnings season began this week with First Solar (FSLR 4.19%), and it's the beginning of an exciting year for the industry. This should be a year of tremendous growth as solar becomes more and more cost-competitive, and long term, that creates a huge opportunity for investors. But the news buried beneath the headlines may have a lasting impact on the industry's competitiveness.

First Solar's big leadership change
When First Solar reported earnings this week, the market wasn't terribly excited by the numbers. And that helped gloss over the fact that James Hughes is stepping down as CEO on July 1 and will be replaced by CFO Mark Widmar.  

On the conference call, the move was explained as a natural time to turn the company over to new leadership after Hughes completed his work making First Solar's technology competitive once again. From a technology standpoint, the heavy lifting is complete, and now First Solar will become more of a project development company that needs a leader focused on maximizing financial gains from those projects.

The change in leadership may have happened earlier than many investors expected, but it's a natural move given Widmar's experience with First Solar and his role as CFO of yieldco 8point3 Energy Partners, so I don't think it changes the investment thesis at all. 

Image source: SunPower.

SunPower goes after the Internet of Things
One announcement that got little fanfare but could be very consequential is SunPower's (SPWR 4.61%) agreement with AT&T (T 1.43%) to bring Internet of Things (IoT) technology to SunPower's residential offering Equinox. The IoT tie will help customers "remotely monitor cargo, homes, vehicles, containers, and also -- solar panels" according to Mike Troiano, VP of IoT at AT&T.  

What exactly that means for SunPower from an operational or monitoring standpoint has yet to be determined, but this could open a huge marketing channel. As part of the deal, the companies plan to wirelessly connect 100,000 solar systems in the U.S. and will co-market solar to 1 million qualified AT&T customers in key states like California, New York, and Hawaii.

SunPower has managed to build partnerships with major utilities and national partners like AT&T and KB Home to sell solar. As the cost of sales in solar rises, these partnerships could be a key competitive advantage.

Trina Solar's busy week
Early this week, Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL) announced that it has partnered with GE Energy Financial Services to build a 14 MW solar project in Japan. GE will own 85% of the plant and Trina will be the builder. This may be a small partnership now, but getting such a big name to invest in a key country for Trina Solar is a big move long-term.  

The company also said it has recorded an efficiency record of 23.5% for a large-area interdigitated back contact silicon solar cell. This is notable because it's around SunPower's efficiency record. There's only one problem.  

It too two years to go from the 24.4% efficiency record for a small area laboratory cell, and Trina Solar still doesn't have manufacturing capabilities for the product. Making cells in a lab is much easier than making them at scale. If Trina Solar can do it with high-efficiency cells it will be a big deal, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Check back at next week as earnings season continues with SunPower reporting on Thursday, May 5.

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Stocks Mentioned

AT&T Inc. Stock Quote
AT&T Inc.
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First Solar, Inc. Stock Quote
First Solar, Inc.
$65.40 (4.19%) $2.63
SunPower Corporation Stock Quote
SunPower Corporation
$15.90 (4.61%) $0.70

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