There’s a lot of discussion these days about the future of SolarCity. No one has the privilege of a crystal ball, but many are making predictions. None are saying with any certainty, though, how they think the company will fare in the long run.
SolarCity is certainly experiencing a mixed state of affairs. It recently reported a quarterly loss that was large but lower than expected. Meanwhile, the company has maintained its position as the #1 residential solar installer in the country.
What’s in SolarCity’s favor? Article after article points to a major element the company has going for it: Elon Musk. As Travis Hoium notes in the Motley Fool, “The scale of what he’s trying to do is unprecedented in clean energy and may change the way we think about energy for the next century.” He adds, “Musk isn’t someone I would bet against, but the sheer scale of what he’s trying to do in very young and risky industries is huge.”
In another article from the same day, Hoium also points out three risk factors for SolarCity:
Consumers may be transitioning away from solar leases. This one is huge, because it could jeopardize the retained value SolarCity is counting on for future revenues.
Customers may not live up to expectations. We don’t know yet how solar customers will behave throughout or at the end of their lease terms. Will they renew, as SolarCity expects? That remains to be seen.
The Silevo manufacturing plant may not execute as expected. While buying Silevo may have been a necessary risk to take, Hoium says, it’s still a risk.
Regarding leases, it’s interesting to note that SolarCity is now (“quietly”) testing loans. We’ve been saying for a while that solar loans will get big. When I spoke With SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive last fall, though, he seemed a bit dismissive of loans, saying he doesn’t see loans becoming the next big thing and supplanting solar leases — though he acknowledged they might make inroads with some customers.
Since then, more loans have become available, including one from Mosaic that features O&M. Consumers may be realizing that in many cases, loans can be a better deal for them. While we may always need a range of offerings for different situations, SolarCity seems to see that it needs to get into the solar loan business to maintain its edge.
The company is not yet talking much about loans. They certainly weren’t mentioned to the potential customer “Retired Securities Attorney,” who’s doing an interesting detailed study of the company’s offerings on Seeking Alpha. If you have some time, this first installment in his analysis is worth checking out.
The author seeks to analyze the company’s business plan of growing its customer base (even if that means a loss now) and capitalizing on that later. He makes no definitive assessment in this first of his three-part analysis but lays out the ways in which this plan may or may not work. And what makes the article really interesting is that he uses his own home as a case study for the different lease and PPA options offered by the company.
The fact that his home, at 7500 square feet, is not exactly your average house doesn’t daunt the author, who provides a spreadsheet that others can plug different numbers into. For his own situation, he finds that the fixed rate PPA is a better long-term deal than other options. His main point, though, is that in calculating its retained value, SolarCity is assuming that all customers will renew their contracts. That leads him to conclude that the company’s retained value metric is “grossly overstated.” Yet he doesn’t say that SolarCity is a bad investment — presumably he will make a determination on its investment value in future articles.
Meanwhile, SolarCity’s stock has been having some issues, in part because of “unimpressive growth in net income, generally high debt management risk, weak operating cash flow and feeble growth in its earnings per share.” The stock price had also been escalating perhaps a bit too fast, and the company is facing increasing competition. There are also concerns about an impending panel shortage adversely affecting residential solar. And then there’s … Elon Musk.
It’s important, of course, not to look at one company as a sign of what will happen with solar. As Hoium notes in his articles, the solar industry changes so fast that it’s hard to predict what might happen or how any one company might fare.
We strongly believe solar is here to stay, and that it’s going to get a lot bigger than many people realize. We’re not the only ones saying this. And if recent reports are right, we may not have to wait that long to find out.