More solar contraction: First Solar axes chief scientist, lowering financial outlook

The era of energy rentseekers continues to wind down.

The Wall Street Journal reports,

First Solar Inc. is overhauling its business strategy and management team, while also lowering its financial outlook for 2011, as the company faces slumping market demand for its solar panels.

Over the next three years, the U.S. solar-power giant plans to shift away from existing markets that are dependent on government subsidies, toward building solar-power plants in the U.S. and other countries where it aims to serve utilities to compete against conventional power generators, Chief Executive Mike Ahearn said.

Long a beacon in solar manufacturing, First Solar hasn’t escaped the deterioration in the market. Solar-panel manufacturers have seen profits shrink and costs rise as demand for their products has weakened in Europe and prices have plunged amid an oversupply of panels, primarily from China. The oversupply of solar panels has driven solar-panel manufacturers’ stock prices to multiyear lows and forced some solar companies into bankruptcy…

At the same time, several executives and employees are leaving the company under a restructuring effort. Those departing executives include T.K. Kallenbach, president of the components business and Chief Accounting Officer James Zhu, First Solar said.
People familiar with the situation said Markus Beck, a chief scientist with First Solar’s advanced technology unit in Santa Clara, Calif., was let go along with 59 other people at that location.

Mr. Beck joined First Solar in 2008 after serving as chief technologist in the early period of development at Solyndra LLC, a start-up that has recently been embroiled in a political firestorm after burning through a large federal loan and then filing for bankruptcy. At both companies Mr. Beck focused on developing solar cells based on copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS, a potentially high-efficiency semiconductor.
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Ken James/Bloomberg
First Solar Inc. solar panels form a one megawatt solar photovoltaic array at Intel Corp.’s campus in Folsom, Calif.on Monday, Aug. 9, 2010.

First Solar’s core technology is based on cadmium telluride solar cells.

The person familiar with the situation said the decision to scale back the CIGS effort at First Solar was financial, and didn’t have to do with the lack of progress on the technical side.