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Is SunPower's and Meritage Homes' "Free Solar" Promotion a Gimmick or Smart Business?

Solar industry leader SunPower  (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) and top-10 U.S. homebuilder Meritage Homes  (NYSE: MTH  ) are giving away solar systems in California, at least for the next couple of weeks, at select Meritage housing developments. Billed as being "in celebration of Earth Month," the promotion includes a small 1.4-kilowatt solar system that would only partially offset power consumption for the majority of homes. One question comes to mind here: Is this an indication that solar is becoming a differentiator for consumers looking for a new home, or does it point toward solar panels being further considered just a commodity?

For investors in these two companies, what's the takeaway? Let's see if we can shine a little light on things.

Meritage home featuring SunEdison panels. Source: Meritage Homes.

Solar just bouncing back; growth is strong
Over the past few years, investing in solar panel and component makers such as SunPower has been a real up-and-down affair. SunPower's stock price today is almost the same as it was five years ago, but there have been a lot of rises and falls in between. A stumbling economy, and then Chinese efforts to prop up that country's solar makers, both combined to level the industry and nearly cripple many companies, including SunPower. If it weren't for a massive investment from French energy giant Total in 2011, SunPower very easily could have gone bankrupt. However, U.S. and European Union policies, and what seems to be a reduced amount of Chinese government support for solar companies there, have returned stability and growth to the industry.

SPWR Chart

SPWR data by YCharts.

After losing close to $1 billion combined in 2011 and 2012, SunPower turned a roughly $80 million profit in 2013. It is investing heavily into increasing manufacturing capacity this year and next, as projections for demand for solar panels continue to grow. Much of SunPower's advantage is in its industry-leading technology; the company has what are widely considered some of the most efficient panels on the market based on cost per unit of power production, sold at competitive prices.

Will "free solar" deals undercut SunPower's strategic advantages?
This is a short-term promotion, and it looks like it's largely designed to draw attention to specific properties. But if this draws a lot of business, it's possible Meritage will want to make this offering more often. The risk of such a regular event is that consumers come to expect that solar is something that's just free. That's bad when your business is based on having superior technology, because it undermines the value. 

SunPower's X Series panels are among the most efficient available. Source: SunPower.

Raising awareness of the affordability of solar is worth it
Meritage does a lot of business in California, which has some of the strongest state-level solar incentives for homebuilders. Add in that California is by far the most populated state, with close to 39 million residents, and it's a very important market for solar. Meritage appears willing to subsidize part of the cost of these small solar systems -- as it likely is with this promotion. This will certainly help shift consumer perception -- which still largely views solar as more expensive than the utility company -- toward an understanding that over time, solar could cost much less than power from the grid. 

The customer, Meritage, and SunPower all can win
Most people don't know how much solar panels cost, or what the return is. A residential solar system can cost $20,000 or more, which sounds like a ton of money. Actually, it is a ton of money for most people, but a solar system is designed to last 20 to 25 years. Today's consumer mindset of very few things being worth keeping for more than three to five years tends to water down the understanding that solar is a long-term investment for your home. 

Chances are, a $20,000 solar system (roughly what a 6-kilowatt or 7-kilowatt system would cost in California) could offset a power bill that was $150 per month or more. Over 20 years, $20,000 averages to only $83 per month. Simply put, the result is a 40% cost reduction over two decades, not even factoring in price increases from the utility, which could be 2% annually (about where inflation averages) or more, depending on where you live. This additional cost of the utility could add even more value over time. But without factoring any annual utility increases, and assuming your consumption remained stable, we are talking about $16,000 in power bill savings. 

Final thoughts: Where there's mystery, there's margin
Understanding the total expense of a solar system can seem complicated at first. Showing a customer a monthly mortgage increase for adding solar makes it easy to see the cost savings against a monthly utility bill. And while this is easier for many buyers to grasp, it also makes it easier for Meritage and SunPower to charge higher prices for upgraded solar systems -- with much less chance of the homebuyer shopping around. 

At the end of the day, whether this is a once-per-year special or becomes a more regular offering, increased consumer exposure to solar is a good thing. Meritage is one of the best homebuilders to invest in, and SunPower's technology makes it a solid company to own in the solar segment. There's little reason to see this move being anything but good for both companies. And that's good for shareholders.

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Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 1:18 PM, ronwiserinvestor wrote:

    An installed 1.4 kW solar system, after applying the ITC, would cost a consumer about $2,940 at today's much lower pricing. Not a whole lot of money when you consider the overall cost of a home.

    "Chances are, a $20,000 solar system (roughly what a 6-kilowatt or 7-kilowatt system would cost in California)" The same is true for a 6-7 kW system. After applying the Federal ITC, the price would actually be closer to $14,700 for the 7 kW system.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 1:26 PM, dangerdanger wrote:

    Having solar (sun power in my case) pre-installed on my home was a major influence as to why I bought the home. I was skeptical as to how well it would help drop my electricity bill (mainly because I didn't know that much about sun power panels at the time). Then I got my first bill....$69 for the whole year! Of course now I have kids and that bill has gone up (but still super cheap). I wouldn't buy another house that didn't have solar on it.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 3:15 PM, ronwiserinvestor wrote:

    SunPower will have some stiff competition now that Hyper X Solar systems have hit the market. Hyper X includes high performance solar modules that uses N-Type, thin film passivated, tunneling junction architecture that provides high efficiency, a smaller footprint and a much lower cost which makes Hyper X solar's price/performance ratio hard to compete against when compared to conventional solar panels.

    Hyper X solar offers a better PTC to STC ratio "Real World" performance according to the California Energy Commission's performance rating listings than over 100 of SunPower's solar panel models.

    Hyper X solar also offers an incredible -0.27%/degree C temperature coefficient rating for awesome performance in hot/warm climates and best of all Hyper X solar systems are priced thousands less and even tens of thousands less on larger systems than a SunPower solar system.

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Jason Hall

Born and raised in the Deep South of Georgia, Jason now calls Southern California home. A Fool since 2006, he began contributing to in 2012. Trying to invest better? Like learning about companies with great (or really bad) stories? Jason can usually be found there, cutting through the noise and trying to get to the heart of the story.

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