First Solar to Build India Farms as Outages Propel Sun Power

First Solar Inc., the only profitable panel-maker among the 10 biggest in the world, plans to develop solar farms in India as chronic outages drive demand for electricity derived from sun power.

The target is to take at least a 20 percent share of India’s photovoltaic sales by expanding beyond First Solar’s role as a supplier, said Sujoy Ghosh, the new India head of the world’s biggest thin-film panel maker. Demand will probably come from industrial and commercial consumers without any government subsidies involved, he said.

The Tempe, Arizona-based company is betting that building plants and selling solar power is a better way to make money than competing with Chinese competitors on panel sales after prices fell 47 percent in the past year. India, which suffered the world’s biggest blackout this month, has a 30 gigawatt backup power market, created by factories and businesses that switch to diesel generators when power goes out, according to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

“Our focus really is to create a new stream of demand in the market from industrial and commercial businesses,” Ghosh said by phone. “That would require us to do a lot of the development” of projects, including building, arranging financing and supplying modules, he said.

Power Hedge

India’s 1,030 megawatts of solar capacity, almost all built in the past year, was driven by government contracts under which state distribution utilities buy power at above-market rates. First Solar plans to sign contracts to sell solar power directly to businesses seeking to lock in their own sources of power to hedge against the shortfall of electricity and surging prices in the nation.

“As that self-generation market opens up in a country like India with an 18 percent deficit, it would create a natural need for investing into a manufacturing facility here to serve needs of the market locally,” Ghosh said. “Once we turn on the switch, we don’t want to turn it off.”

The most important factor determining whether to invest in a factory is “predictable demand,” which would come from large industrial companies and privately owned distribution utilities buying solar for commercial reasons, he said.

In contrast, solar installations in Europe, the world’s largest solar market, are going through a boom-and-bust cycle as government subsidies are withdrawn. Demand in Germany and Spain may fall by about 75 percent next year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

First Solar on Aug. 2 reported an 81 percent jump in second-quarter net income to $111 million after making a strategic shift toward building solar farms with its modules. The nine other biggest solar panel makers, including Suntech Power Holdings and Trina Solar Ltd., reported losses in their last quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Copyright 2012 Bloomberg.

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