LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - First Solar Inc forecast on Wednesday higher-than-expected 2010 sales and said it plans to boost solar module production capacity in Malaysia, sending its shares up 3.3 percent.
Still, supply of photovoltaic solar modules will exceed demand, Chief Executive Robert Gillette told analysts, which will keep the industry under pressure.
First Solar, one of the world's largest solar module makers, has the lowest production costs in the industry and its views are likely to influence sentiment across the renewable energy sector.
For 2010, the company forecast sales of $2.7 billion to $2.9 billion, topping analysts' average view of $2.4 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
First Solar estimated earnings between $6.05 to $6.85 per share in 2010, compared with analysts' average forecast of $6.55.
The company plans to spend $365 million to add eight more production lines at its existing operations in Malaysia, which together would boost its capacity by 424 megawatts
"This is critical to our success," Gillette said.
With the expected addition of a factory in France, the Tempe, Arizona-based company will lift its production capacity to about 1.8 gigawatts in 2012, enough panels to equal the power output of an average nuclear power plant.
In 2009, First Solar made and shipped more than 1 gigawatt of its thin-film cadmium telluride solar panels, which are cheaper to make but less efficient than silicon-based panels made by competitors such as Suntech Power Holdings and SunPower Corp.
The solar industry -- which had posted average annual growth rates of nearly 50 percent since 2000 through 2008 -- has been hit hard by the global economic downturn this year and is banking on a strong rebound in 2010.
Gillette said that he expects 2010 to be stronger than 2009, with global market demand reaching 7.5 gigawatts, and overall demand growing by 35 percent per year through 2012.
"2010 is going to be stronger, we think, than 2009. There are some question marks around what happens with the (supports) in Germany and other areas," he said, referring to expected cuts to industry supports in the world's largest market.
Gillette said the expected cuts to solar supports in Germany may take place at mid-year, which should trigger strong demand there in the first half of the year ahead of any change.
The company has a pipeline of more than 1.5 GW in projects, which will require financing and possible institutional capital, the company said.
Shares of First Solar rose 3.3 percent to $141.31 in post-market trade.
(Reporting by Laura Isensee and Matt Daily; Editing by Richard Chang, Phil Berlowitz)