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Fast-growing First Solar announces deals and plants

The maker of solar modules might not get as much attention as some solar companies, but it's pulling in the dollars.

First Solar, those cadmium telluride oddballs, is on the move again.

The company said this week that it has signed a deal to supply Babcock & Brown with solar modules in a deal that will bring it a $1 billion in revenue between 2008 and 2009. Overall, First has contracts to install over 3 gigawatts of power through 2012.

First Solar

To meet demand for the project, the company's board has approved a fourth manufacturing plant in Malaysia. Two are under construction, and the company announced a third manufacturing plant in April. Each plant will have four manufacturing lines. When up and running, each plant will be capable of turning out 120 megawatts worth of solar panels a year, or 480 megawatts in total.

That will more than double the company's existing capacity. Right now, the company has plants in Germany and the U.S. that cumulatively can crank out 210 megawatts worth of panels.

On Wednesday, First Solar will announce earnings for its third quarter.

Unlike silicon solar cell makers or the armies of CIGS manufacturers, First Solar extracts electricity from thin films of cadmium telluride (a semiconductor made from cadmium and tellurium) on glass. Although not as efficient as silicon cells, cadmium tellurium cells are comparatively cheap to make and fairly robust. They operate in a wide temperature range and in a variety of light conditions, including dawn and dusk. In other words, it's the Honda Civic of solar technologies.

The company isn't facing a material shortage, like silicon manufacturers, and it is producing product, unlike the vast majority of CIGS companies.

The fact that glass, which is heavy, was a crucial part of the equation made some people skeptical early on, but the company has been growing dramatically. In the second quarter, First Solar reported $77.2 million in revenue, up from $27.9 million for the same period the year before. Net income came to $44.4 million, compared with a loss of $2.5 million for the same quarter the year before.

It went public about a year ago at $20. It now sells for $169 a share. Financial analysts love this company.

The Walton family of the Wal-Mart fame funded the company from the beginning and still owns a large chunk of the stock.