First Solar, the largest solar company in the world, announced today that it will be acquiring its chief rival, NextLight Renewable Power, a developer of solar power projects, for about $285 million. The deal will add 1.1-gigawatts worth of solar panel arrays to the larger company’s 1.4-gigawatt pipeline.
But for First Solar, the move isn’t about capacity, it’s about relationships. Between its Agua Caliente and AV Solar Ranch developments, NextLight has power purchase agreements for more than 520 megawatts with Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the largest and most strategically positioned utilities in the U.S. (Northern California has become a bit of a laboratory for progressive energy policies).
First Solar is hoping to become a formidable force in California, which last year mandated that a third of its power be generated from renewable sources of energy by 2020. It already has connections with Southern California Edison but lacked a strong bond with PG&E — until now. NextLight, based in San Francisco, could give the company a serious boost.
The deal also marks the continuation of First Solar’s acquisition strategy. Not content to develop projects as fast as it can on its own, the company has been gobbling up other companies to add megawatts to its portfolio. In the last year, it absorbed both Optisolar and Edison Mission Group to do just that.
After the deal with NextLight closes next quarter, First Solar can claim to have a development pipeline seven times the size of its next biggest competitor, public company SunPower, as Greentech Media points out. This sounds daunting, but SunPower isn’t backing down, running an acquisition game of its own. In February, it bought European Sunray Renewable Energy for $277 million to expand its core business beyond panel manufacturing into utility-scale solar development.
Dwarfing domestic rivals, First Solar is now protecting its empire against Chinese competitors like SunTech and JA Solar, which have been growing steadily and initiating more projects everywhere, including the U.S. Benefiting from low-cost manufacturing and a lax regulatory environment, these companies pose a real and serious threat to First Solar.
The NextLight deal wasn’t the only big piece of news out of First Solar today. The Tempe, Ariz. company also posted strong first quarter earnings, including an unexpected rise in profit that bumped up its stock price 6.5 percent to $136.78. Driven by sales in Europe, where government subsidies for the solar industry will be cut later this year, the company saw a profit of $172.3 million and revenues of $568 million (an increase of 36 percent) for the quarter.
In addition to pushing hard on solar array projects, First Solar will be adding manufacturing capacity, announcing the construction of a new plant to churn out its solar thin film, to be completed by the end of next year. The material is produced at a lower cost, but is also said to be less efficient than that churned out by competitors.