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First Solar Preview: It's About the Outlook

The fact that First Solar has only provided a total pipeline number in the past, and a revenue expectation from the large-scale solar business, doesn't allow analysts and investors to completely understand the financial model for the larger projects over the course of the next few years.

"With the German business falling off, a lot of solar modules need to be re-routed to the U.S. and the systems business. But as uncertainty about the feed-in tariff changes in Germany ends, uncertainty about the project development business comes into focus. It's still a source of confusion," the Deutsche Bank analyst said.

Deutsche Bank is at a hold on First Solar shares, arguing that there is little reason to expect a major catalyst for an upward move in the stock on the first quarter earnings.

Collins Stewart analyst Dan Ries also evinced the uncertainty over the First Solar systems business headed into the earnings report on Wednesday in a research note. The Collins Stewart analyst wrote, "Forecasting FSLR's quarterly performance will be more difficult than usual in the next few quarters as the company's project business ramps and causes revenue recognition delays and the company to hold modules in inventory instead of selling them to third-party customers.... FSLR has power purchase agreements for 1,400 MW of projects it is developing. However, it currently has only 192 MW of these systems sold, or roughly 50% of the 370 MW of projects we expect it to build in CY10."

First Solar announced on Wednesday morning that it is acquiring 1.1 gigawatts in a southwestern U.S. project pipeline from NextLight Renewable Power for $285 million in cash, adding to the focus on the systems business.

The deal may also have implications for First Solar competitor SunPower (SPWRA).

The news of the Nextlight acquisition on Wednesday morning added to the total level of projects that First Solar will begin work on in the second half of 2010 -- something that Collins Stewart's Ries had specifically hoped for in his earnings preview piece. However, First Solar bears see the latest deal as a capitulation to the problems inherent in the solar market, as opposed to a sign of smooth transition from the module selling frenzy in Germany to a stable average sales price in the systems market.

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