Elon Musk's SolarCity Is Electrifying the Energy Industry

SolarCity   (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) hit the public market in December, with an initial public offering price of $8 per share. The stock charged ahead in its first day of trading to close at $11.79, or 47% above its initial offering price. The fun didn't stop there. Shares continued to gain momentum in the months following its IPO. In fact, shares are up more than 55% year to date.

That's not bad for a company backed by rocket man Elon Musk. If you remember, Musk's electric-car company, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) , was one of the most shorted stocks on the Nasdaq following its IPO. We'll get back to that in a minute. First, let's shed some light on where SolarCity is headed in 2013 and see whether this stock is worthy of your portfolio.

Seeing the light
SolarCity, which installs solar panels and helps customers finance them, is trying to survive in a market that has burned investors in the past. Of course, it hasn't been easy for the company to gain investor confidence when the pain of past failures, such as Solyndra, is still fresh in investors' minds.

However, SolarCity is somewhat immune to the cost pressures that have unraveled other solar energy companies before it. Unlike names such as First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR  ) or Trina Solar, SolarCity doesn't manufacture the solar panels. SolarCity found its niche in leasing panels to corporate and residential customers and overseeing the financing of such installations.

Meanwhile, First Solar and Trina Solar are locked in price and efficiency wars over the panels they produce. In fact, fellow Fool Travis Hoium recently explained in depth how First Solar's module manufacturing business is dragging down the company. While it makes sense for a company like First Solar to transition to a solar systems-focused business, it would mean increased competition for SolarCity.

Today, SolarCity stands out as the largest installer of residential solar energy systems in the United States. Still, it hasn't yet earned a profit. The company just reported a wider-than-expected loss for its fourth quarter, its first as a public company.

SolarCity reported a net loss of $1.10 per share on revenue of $28 million for the period, because of increased operating costs. Analysts on average had estimated a per share loss of $0.54, according to Reuters.

But despite the disappointing earnings, SolarCity has one thing its solar peers don't: The company's chairman is billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Keeping it in the family
As far as betting on green tech goes, Musk is laughing all the way to the bank. The SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO nearly bankrupted himself getting these companies to where they are today. However, Musk is now the majority shareholder in two of clean tech's most promising companies: Tesla and SolarCity.

Musk had a big hand in developing the business model for SolarCity. His cousins later founded the company in 2006 and have retained control of SolarCity throughout its public debut: Lyndon Rive as CEO and Peter Rive as chief technology officer.

Despite setbacks in this sector, Lyndon is confident that the market is ready for clean energy, particularly in solar. "The market adoption is almost doubling every year," the SolarCity CEO quipped in a recent interview with Bloomberg News.

Innovation is in the family's genes. In fact, this isn't the Rive brothers' first entrepreneurial undertaking. Their first start-up, a software-as-a-service company named Everdream, earned them a cool $120 million after Dell scooped it up in 2007.

In addition, as an investor, I find it hard to bet against Musk, given his track record of creating markets for products were there were none before. More than that, Musk has strategically overlapped SolarCity with Tesla Motors, his electric-vehicle start-up.

Together with SolarCity, Tesla is blazing a new path in the renewable-energy space with its Supercharger network. The companies are now on track to install more than 100 of these solar-powered carports across the U.S. by 2015.

Known as Supercharger stations, the electric fueling locations will be free to use for those driving Tesla cars. Not only is SolarCity helping to install these solar panels for the Supercharger network, but the system also returns more energy to the grid than it uses to charge people's cars.

Partnerships abound
SolarCity is also working with Honda Motors to provide the automaker's customers with affordable home solar systems, according to The New York Times. For SolarCity, the alliance with Honda could mean millions more customers and installations in the year ahead. I suspect we'll see more partnerships like this in the future, as consumers begin to look for more cost-effective solutions to power their homes and cars.

SolarCity's market position as installer and financier rather than manufacturer is prompting other companies, including First Solar, to reassess their own business models. Investors and bystanders alike have been shocked by First Solar's precipitous drop over the past 12 months, and now the stakes have never been higher for the company. Is it done for good or ready for a rebound? If you're looking for continuing updates and guidance on the company whenever news breaks, we've created a brand-new report that details every must-know side of this stock. To get started, just click here now.

 


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  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2013, at 6:15 AM, nonqual wrote:

    "Not only is SolarCity helping to install these solar panels for the Supercharger network, but the system also returns more energy to the grid than it uses to charge people's cars."

    The second half is simply false. Of the 8 existing Supercharging locations, only 2 or 3 have solar arrays, but none big enough to sustain even minimal weekly use. Ask all the Model S (or Roadster) buyers in sunny states like Arizona or Florida when was the last time they filled up for free on sunshine. The first 6 Superchargers were revealed in September 2012; nearly six months later they added two more, neither with solar panels. At that rate, there will be nearly 20 by the end of 2015. SC's are money leeches for Tesla and neither Tesla nor SolarCity has the spare cash to build them.

    Superchargers are all about selling cars, not about recharging them.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2013, at 1:51 PM, ronwiserinvestor wrote:

    The solar leasing company's success has always been predicated two things: The myth that solar was too expensive to own and the potentially dangerous allure of the $0 down solar lease. Unfortunately for the leasing companies, prices for solar ownership continue to drop. Because of this, it no longer makes financial sense for the average consumer to consider a lease or a PPA when compared to owning while keeping the financial incentives for themselves. SolarCity's strength at the moment is that they have the marketing muscle to spread the myth that it is too expensive to own a solar system. Once that myth is exposed in the mainstream media, I would expect that the leasing companies' momentum will slow and there will be a reversal of fortunes in this extremely competitive market. The return on investment always has been and always will be far better when owning a solar system, rather that leasing a solar system.

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