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First Solar Won't Get One Big Energy Loan

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Shares of U.S. solar company First Solar (FSLR - Get Report) slid by 7% on Wednesday, and due to a reason many in the market were not aware of: the company was telling some investors and analysts that one of its three large-scale solar projects would not receive a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy.

Pressure was exerted on First Solar shares by the political fallout from the bankruptcy of White House-backed solar company Solyndra, with the House Energy committee saying late on Tuesday that it wanted to review all of the loans still in the conditional commitment phase -- those not closed. This led to speculation, including here, that First Solar's three federal loan guarantees faced unquantifiable political risk.

The First Solar loans do still face this political risk, but only two of the three, as First Solar told a group of analysts and investors that one would not be ready to break ground by the Sept. 30 deadline for DOE loan funding. To qualify for the federal loan, projects would have to start construction by Sept. 30.

First Solar shares finished trading Wednesday at their lowest level since 2007, though it's a slide that started well before the federal loan news and the Solyndra bankruptcy, as the solar sector is experiencing overcapacity and a pricing freefall.

The investigative subcommittee of the House Energy committee is requesting that Energy Secretary Steven Chu provide details by next Monday about 14 loans that are expected to close in the next 9 days as part of the same Department of Energy program that provided $528 million to Solyndra.

Emails related to the Solyndra loan suggest the loan review was rushed, and Congressional leaders want Chu to prove that the DOE is not accelerating more loan approvals before the stimulus-package program expires on Sept. 30.

The risk to First Solar shareholders from the Solyndra debacle still exists, and can't be quantified, but the news from First Solar that one of its biggest projects will have to seek capital markets debt financing is quantifiable, and according to most analysts, means the solar company's earnings over the next two years will be weaker. The company's earnings power has become more reliant on large-scale solar projects for which it has received DOE loans.

The project that First Solar will not seek a federal loan for is its Topaz project, a $1.9 billion loan for a 550 megawatt project, one of the largest solar projects ever to be constructed. It still has conditional commitments for its Desert Sunlight (500 MW, $1.8 billion loan), and Antelope project (350MW, $680 million loan), and already closed a loan for its Agua Caliente project.

First Solar did not respond to an email from TheStreet asking for confirmation of the Topaz report, but on Thursday morning the company issued a press release saying what some in the market had already known for at least a day: Topaz would not receive a loan guarantee from then DOE.

Aaron Chew, an analyst at Maxim Group who spoke directly with First Solar, confirmed the news, as did several other analysts briefed by the solar company.
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