Business models over Internet
Solar panels are now remaking the energy equation in the U.S. and breaking records for installations every quarter: There were more solar panels installed in the U.S. over the last 18 months than the last 30 years. But when it comes to making money off of this solar boom, some of the largest energy companies in the U.S. have (so far) left money on the table.
Why? It wasn’t that they didn’t have access to some obscure panel technology patent that was invented years ago in a university lab. Or that they didn’t have deep knowledge of how cheap solar panels would one day become. It was a drop-dead simple business-model innovation that they — for whatever reason — didn’t jump on.
At the World Energy Innovation Forum at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. this week, the CEO of GE, Jeff Immelt, said during an onstage interview that GE had focused so intently on how bad the solar panel business was that they “missed SolarCity.” “My God I wish I had thought of that, ” said Immelt.
Immelt isn’t the only energy leader that has been thinking about SolarCity. The CEO of NRG Energy, David Crane, told me during an interview earlier this year that NRG wants to be as big or bigger than SolarCity in its newly launched residential solar financing and installation business, which is similar to the one that SolarCity founded in 2006.
If you haven’t heard of it, SolarCity is the now-public company founded by South African entrepreneurial brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive; their cousin Elon Musk is SolarCity’s chairman. SolarCity has built a business off of financing and installing solar panels on the rooftops of buildings owned by families and businesses.
SolarCity can provide the upfront financing for the solar system so that the customer doesn’t have to put any money down to get the panels, and this is the key that has unlocked the solar panel business. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for a solar panel system, the customer pays SolarCity for the cost of the solar energy on a monthly basis, which can be less expensive than what they’ve been paying the local utility. Depending on the deal, the contract can last a couple decades.
In its recent earnings report last week, SolarCity said it had more than doubled its revenue to $63 million for the quarter compared to last year while cutting its losses for the quarter almost in half to a loss of $24 million (from $41 million last year), and it also raised its guidance for the year. SolarCity has a goal of becoming one of the largest suppliers of electricity in the U.S., and it’s on its way to getting there — it says it will exit 2014 with more than 2 gigawatts of cumulative solar power deployed. The company went public in late 2012 at $9.25 per share, and it’s now trading just under $50 per share.