For those who have jumped into the solar market only in the last few years, First Solar (NDSQ: FSLR) symbolizes an incredible success. It's the company to be. The one to beat.

For those who have longer memories, First Solar hasn't always reigned supreme. Once in a while, some of them serve up tales that offer a sobering reminder that building a good solar company could take a lot of time – perhaps longer than what venture capitalists have patience for – and some talent and luck.

"[First Solar CEO] Michael Ahearn was begging for contracts with NREL because it was on the verge of shutting down," recalled Thomas Surek, who worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for 29 years and was the PV program manager before he left in 2007 to found a consulting practice in Denver, Colo.

"When the silicon shortage hit, they had the technology ready to scale up, and they became a success story almost in unprecedented proportion in the last four to five years," said Surek, speaking at the Photovoltaic Summit 2009 in San Francisco Monday.

The Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar went public in November 2006 at $20 per share and saw its stock shot up more than four times the amount eight months later. Even now, during a tough economy when other solar panel makers are posting losses, First Solar raked in profits (see First Solar Triples 1Q Net Income, Looks for New CEO).

But the company, which in fact traced its roots to another company that started in the 1980s, struggled in its early years to figure out how to make solar panels in volumes and attract buyers.

Its predecessor started developing its manufacturing technology in 1987, according to First Solar's filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchanges Commission. Its founder Harold McMaster worked on using amorphous silicon as the key ingredient in making the solar panels before switching to cadmium and tellurium. A solar startup that makes such a switch today could easily face tough questions about its chances for survival.

McMaster sold his company to True North Partners in 1999, and True North re-named the company First Solar. The company didn't set up a pilot line until 2002 and began production at its first commercial factory in 2004, First Solar said in its SEC filings.

Between January 2002 and the end of 2005, the company sold 28 megawatts of solar panels. It reported $48.1 million in sales for 2005 and never posted a net income prior to its initial public offering.

Along the way, it was lucky to have a generous supporter, John Walton, whose dad founded Walmart. Walton reportedly invested more than $150 million in First Solar. That's not the amount of money that a single VC might fork over to a solar startup these days. 

McMaster was an expert at making glass plates, and First Solar figured out a way to quickly produce solar panels coated with cadmium and tellurium on glass. As Surek said, the company rose to prominence when other solar panel makers faced a shortage of polysilicon. Polysilicon remains the main ingredient in most of the solar panels on the market today.

First Solar, meanwhile, seems to have copied the Walmart founder Sam Walton's strategy of offering low-cost goods to lure in shoppers. The company claims to be able to produce solar panels at $0.93 per watt, cheaper than anyone else. Surek said First Solar is selling panels at under $2 per watt while crystalline silicon panel makers are offering theirs at around $2.25 to $2.50 per watt.

First Solar's success has made it the company to watch. And investigate. The U.S. Department of Interior is investigating a citizen's claim that First Solar might have in appropriately claimed to have bought "strategic land rights of approximately 136,000 acres" in its press release when it bought various unfinished projects from OptiSolar, a startup company in Hayward, Calif., earlier this year (see First Solar Buys OptiSolar's Power Projects).

OptiSolar had applied to develop power projects on land managed by the federal Bureau of Management before it sold its project pipeline to First Solar for $400 million earlier this year. A BLM official told Los Angeles Times that no values should be attached to those applications since the BLM could reject the proposed projects. The concern is that companies would apply for permits and then turn around and essentially sell those permits or their places in line. But it's unclear what, specifically, is the regulatory/legal dispute.

The Los Angeles Times story said the 136,000 acres are on public land in San Bernadino, Kern and Riverside counties in California. A story in the Wall Street Journal said the acres are in California and other southwestern states.

When I checked with First Solar last month, its spokesman told me that the company wouldn't disclose where those acres are.


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Tags: cadmium telluride, ceo, first solar, michael ahearn, optisolar