WRAPUP 1-First Solar ups forecast after miss, Sunpower beats

Thu May 3, 2012 7:49pm EDT

* First Solar posts loss, SunPower tops Wall St view

* First Solar names new CEO

* Shares near flat it post-market trading

By Matt Daily and Braden Reddall

May 3 (Reuters) - First Solar posted a surprise quarterly loss on Thursday, but raised its full-year profit outlook as it drives down production costs for its solar panels, while peer SunPower Corp slightly beat Wall Street forecasts.

The shares of the two largest U.S.-based solar makers were nearly flat in post market trading.

Solar makers have seen profit margins evaporate over the last year as prices for the modules that turn sunlight into electricity have fallen sharply amid a global supply glut and declining government subsidies in Europe, the biggest market.

First Solar, the industry's lowest cost solar panel maker, also said it named James Hughes as its new chief executive to replace Rob Gillette, who was ousted by the company in October last year.

Hughes joined First Solar in March as chief commercial officer and will take over from Chairman Mike Ahearn, who had been serving as the interim CEO.

One analyst said Hughes, who had been the CEO of AEI, a Houston-based company that operates power plants and natural gas projects in emerging markets, appeared to be a good fit for First Solar, which is hoping to increase sales in several developing economies.

"He's the right person to take the company in that direction," said Edwin Mok, an analyst with Needham & Co.

First Solar, which announced last month it would cut 30 percent of its workforce as it moves to cuts costs, raised its forecast for full-year earnings per share to between $4.00 and $4.50 from the $3.75 to $4.25 per share it previously targeted.

The company posted a net loss for the first quarter of $449 million, or $5.20 per share, hurt by a drop in the sales price of its panels.

Excluding restructuring costs and charges to replace faulty panels, First Solar posted a loss of 8 cents per share, missing analysts' average forecast for a profit of 9 cents.

Net sales in the quarter slipped 12 percent to $497 million.

Still, First Solar pointed to its backlog of large-scale solar power plants as key to protecting profits in the coming years, including the 550-megawatt Topaz plant that just started construction.

First Solar, whose shares have tumbled 46 percent so far this year after being the worst performing stock in the Standard & Poors' 500 last year, faces stiff competition from solar manufacturers such as Yingli Green Energy Holding Co Ltd and Suntech Power Holdings Co Ltd, which have benefited from steep drops in the price of polysilicon, the key raw material in their solar panels.

First Solar, which uses cadmium telluride rather than polysilicon, said the cost to produce its panels fell to 69 cents per watt, a drop of 5 percent from a year ago, excluding costs for running plants below capacity and share-based payments.

SunPower, whose polysilicon-based panels are the world's most efficient, reported a 9 percent increase in first-quarter revenue and a loss that was bigger than a year before, but not as wide as analysts expected.

The company, majority owned by French oil giant Total SA , posted a net loss for the quarter of $74.5 million, or 67 cents per share.

Excluding one-time items, SunPower made a loss of 12 cents per share, compared with the average analyst estimate of a 15-cent loss, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

SunPower has also been racing to cut production costs and rein in manufacturing to help work off a supply glut on the global market. SunPower said last month it would consolidate its Philippine manufacturing operations to cut capital expenditure and cost per watt.

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