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First Solar’s Factories Still Running Amid Coronavirus Shutdowns

4 min read

First Solar, the largest PV module maker in the Western hemisphere since opening a second factory in Ohio last year, said on Thursday that all of its global factories remain in production despite the coronavirus outbreak.

On Sunday, March 22, Ohio issued a ‘stay-at-home’ order for most workers; on Wednesday of this week, Governor Mike DeWine indicated that with more than 700 COVID-19 cases in the state, the order could be extended, perhaps until May. Workers and businesses deemed essential are exempt from the order, and the U.S. solar industry has been pushing lawmakers to allow various types of workers to remain in the field.

First Solar operates two large factories near Toledo where it makes thin-film PV modules. “At this time, it is First Solar’s understanding that its manufacturing facilities in these locations are permitted to operate under [Ohio’s] order,” the company said in a statement on Thursday.

First Solar also confirmed that its manufacturing operations continue at its other global factories, in Kulim, Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, despite government-mandated restrictions in both countries.

Keeping its factories up and running is critical for First Solar, which over the past six months has moved decisively away from its vertically integrated model and toward its core manufacturing operations.

The Arizona-based company, which has built some of the biggest solar projects in the U.S., last year said that it would stop acting as an engineering, procurement and construction contractor and start working with external EPC contractors instead.

Last month First Solar went further, announcing that it was evaluating the “strategic options” for its U.S. solar development business — including the possibility of an outright sale.

Instead, First Solar is betting its future on its Series 6 modules, which will kick out more electricity and be easier for construction crews to install than any previous version. The company is unique among major solar manufacturers in its focus on cadmium-telluride thin-film PV technology.

First Solar made substantial progress last year in ramping up its Series 6 production. Daily output of the modules more than doubled in the year to December 2019; the company ended the year with 5.5 gigawatts of nameplate Series 6 production capacity, and expects to reach 8 gigawatts by the end of 2021.

Or that was the plan before the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, anyway.

The global renewable energy industry is still grappling with the implications of the outbreak. Initial concerns about manufacturing constraints have largely given way to worries about potential workforce shortages or weakened demand due to a possible global recession.

The crisis is hitting different renewables sectors differently, even within the solar industry; on Wednesday, SunPower slashed the salaries of its top executives and withdrew its full-year 2020 guidance.

In contrast, First Solar has not walked away from the full-year guidance it issued a month ago. The company forecast net sales of $2.7 to $2.9 billion, with third-party module sales accounting for 70 percent of that. First Solar expects to ship 5.8 to 6 gigawatts of modules this year.

First Solar, the largest PV module maker in the Western hemisphere since opening a second factory in Ohio last year, said on Thursday that all of its global factories remain in production despite the coronavirus outbreak.

On Sunday, March 22, Ohio issued a ‘stay-at-home’ order for most workers; on Wednesday of this week, Governor Mike DeWine indicated that with more than 700 COVID-19 cases in the state, the order could be extended, perhaps until May. Workers and businesses deemed essential are exempt from the order, and the U.S. solar industry has been pushing lawmakers to allow various types of workers to remain in the field.

First Solar operates two large factories near Toledo where it makes thin-film PV modules. “At this time, it is First Solar’s understanding that its manufacturing facilities in these locations are permitted to operate under [Ohio’s] order,” the company said in a statement on Thursday.

First Solar also confirmed that its manufacturing operations continue at its other global factories, in Kulim, Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, despite government-mandated restrictions in both countries.

Keeping its factories up and running is critical for First Solar, which over the past six months has moved decisively away from its vertically integrated model and toward its core manufacturing operations.

The Arizona-based company, which has built some of the biggest solar projects in the U.S., last year said that it would stop acting as an engineering, procurement and construction contractor and start working with external EPC contractors instead.

Last month First Solar went further, announcing that it was evaluating the “strategic options” for its U.S. solar development business — including the possibility of an outright sale.

Instead, First Solar is betting its future on its Series 6 modules, which will kick out more electricity and be easier for construction crews to install than any previous version. The company is unique among major solar manufacturers in its focus on cadmium-telluride thin-film PV technology.

First Solar made substantial progress last year in ramping up its Series 6 production. Daily output of the modules more than doubled in the year to December 2019; the company ended the year with 5.5 gigawatts of nameplate Series 6 production capacity, and expects to reach 8 gigawatts by the end of 2021.

Or that was the plan before the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, anyway.

The global renewable energy industry is still grappling with the implications of the outbreak. Initial concerns about manufacturing constraints have largely given way to worries about potential workforce shortages or weakened demand due to a possible global recession.

The crisis is hitting different renewables sectors differently, even within the solar industry; on Wednesday, SunPower slashed the salaries of its top executives and withdrew its full-year 2020 guidance.

In contrast, First Solar has not walked away from the full-year guidance it issued a month ago. The company forecast net sales of $2.7 to $2.9 billion, with third-party module sales accounting for 70 percent of that. First Solar expects to ship 5.8 to 6 gigawatts of modules this year.

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