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Energy Company CEO Awarded $3.1 Billion in Loan Guarantees Steps Down...Stocks Plummet


“This is not a good sign."

The CEO of the nation's largest solar company is out, First Solar announced Tuesday, sending its shares tumbling more than 24 percent.

Before going any further, it's important to note that First Solar received $3.1 billion in backing under the same loan guarantee program that supported Solyndra.

Rob Gillette, who took over at the company less than three years ago, becomes the latest in a series of high-level departures at First Solar. He was preceded by Bruce Sohn (who resigned as president of operations in April) and utility systems chief Jens Meyerhoff who announced that he was leaving in August.

“Effective immediately, Rob Gillette is no longer serving as Chief Executive Officer, and the Board of Directors thanks him for his service to the company,” First Solar said in a short statement (h/t The Hill). "The Board of Directors has formed a search committee and is initiating a search for a permanent Chief Executive Officer.”

“This is not a good sign,” said Gordon Johnson, head of alternative energy research and managing director of Axiom Capital Management Inc., in a recent Market Watch article.

The timing of the exit seems poorly timed, consider that some of the most high-profile companies in the business have fallen under a congressional microscope.

GOP critics have sought to halt solar loan guarantees since a one-time industry favorite, Solyndra LLC, sought bankruptcy protection after receiving a half-billion loan guarantee.

“He may just be stepping down because he sees the writing on the wall in the solar industry and thinks that First Solar will be unable to compete with crystalline silicon,” Gordon Johnson, an analyst at Axiom Capital Management Inc. in New York, said in a recent Bloomberg report.

First Solar didn't return calls from the Associated Press seeking comment but merely said that they would explain it all when they release their Q3 earnings report.

"Whenever I see a CEO change that's rather abrupt, particularly when it comes preceding earnings, I generally expect that there is bad news coming," Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Dale Pfau said in a Reuters report.

Board Chairman and company founder Mike Ahearn will take over as CEO on an interim basis, overseeing an executive team that has seen plenty of change recently.

Gillette, a former chief executive at Honeywell Aerospace, was hired to steer the company as the entire industry headed into a tough period. Rising competition from Chinese manufacturers and a drop in panel prices slashed profits throughout the industry and some say that is what led to Solyndra's downfall. “It’s more difficult for First Solar to compete now since the price of traditional crystalline solar panels have come down so much,” he added.

However, unlike Solyndra, First Solar has been profitable. In the three months that ended in June, it reported a $61.1 million profit, though that was down from $159 million in the same period a year earlier, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Gillette remained outwardly positive, telling investors that better times were ahead for the solar industry. Germany, Italy, and other European countries that make up the biggest market for solar panels appeared to be "bouncing back" from the continent's financial crisis, he said.

"I think we will see some stability in the markets," Gillette said in August. "I think in Europe we are still kind of all bouncing back."

So what was the damage done to First Solar's stock at the end of the day?

Shares fell from $43.77 to $14.18 in single afternoon of trading.

It might also be worth noting that last week The Blaze cataloged several of the Obama administration's "clean energy" investments in an article titled Energy Department Caught Removing Energy Company's Name From Old Press Releases. The report listed the details behind the failed Solyndra investment, the possible failure of SunPower and the failure of Mountain Plaza Inc.

The article ended with these lines: "Keep your eyes on First Solar ($3.1 billion in loan guarantees). Who knows? They may be the next 'safe' investment to keel over." With the abrupt departure of First Solar's CEO and with its stock nosediving, First Solar could very well go broke and manage to drown out the Solyndra scandal with its $3.1 billion dollar shadow.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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