When I was forced to sell shares of Power-One a few months ago in the Messed-Up Expectations portfolio (the Real-Money Stock Picking portfolio I run for The Motley Fool), that kicked me out of investing in solar energy, something I didn't exactly like. That's because I believe that alternative energy (solar, wind, and the like) will become a bigger and bigger part of the world's source for electricity and I want to take advantage of that.
I know. We've all heard that story before, clear back to the Carter administration. But, it's becoming more and more true today. From 2010 through 2012, $750 billion was invested in all forms of renewable energy. Solar capacity grew from 40 GW installed worldwide at the end of 2010 to 100 GW at the end of 2012. In 2012, the U.S. added 3.3 GW of capacity, nearly doubling its total to 7.2 GW . (Yes, that's less than 0.5% of the total we generate , but it's growing quickly.) Of that total, 288 MW -- 4% -- has been installed by a single company: SolarCity Corp (NASDAQ:SCTY).
Bringing power to the people The company installs roof-top solar panels for residential customers as well as commercial and government customers. (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) and homes for U.S. military are among the latter .) It then sells to the customer the power produced – at prices lower than what they would pay to the local utility -- via long-term leases, usually lasting 20 years. Doing this, it has built up a reserve of future payments due in excess of $1.4 billion .
Its financial statements are complicated and it is currently losing money on a GAAP basis. However, if you think of it as a utility, it becomes easier to understand. It raises funds from investors through partnerships and, eventually, bonds. It uses those funds to pay operating and sales expenses as well as the purchase and installation of the solar electricity systems. From the cash flows generated by the leases, it repays the investors, as well as upfront rebates, administrative costs, parts replacement, maintenance, and insurance for the systems .
With five years and counting of installations under its belt, its estimates of those costs gets better, which means it improves its knowledge of what price to charge customers as well as what interest rates it can afford to pay on its financing. Plus, as it collects electricity use data from each installation, it can use that to craft better sales pitches and help customers save elsewhere through suggestions on better appliances to install. Finally, as it grows a longer baseline of stable cash flows – something bond investors crave – it will be able to sell bonds based on those cash flows to continue expanding (just like a utility).
What's messed up? Part of its current business plan relies upon government rebates based upon the value of the systems installed. As a weekend Barron's article pointed out (and had been previously disclosed by the company), the government is investigating the fair values claimed by the company. The company would have to make up any shortfall to its investors.
There's also the belief that solar electricity is still too expensive relative to utility-supplied electricity. However, costs of solar panels have dropped from $4 per W to below $1 per W in many areas and predictions for reaching grid parity in most major markets range from 2017 to 2020 . In several places, grid parity has already been reached , according to Deutsche Bank.