Since going coming public it's been a rocky ride for Enphase Energy (NASDAQ: ENPH ) and its investors. The stock sank quickly after the 2012 IPO only to recover and recently hit all-time highs.
But along the way financial losses continued to flow, and there seems to be no end to margin pressure in inverters the company produces for the solar industry.
That's why the recent news that Enphase is moving into the operation and maintenance of solar systems is such a transformational development for the company. It offers a new revenue stream and brings new value to the company's inverters. The questions is whether Enphase can differentiate itself from its competitors.
What Enphase is doing
The first major move outside of inverters for Enphase is an operations and maintenance offering for systems financed by Mosaic, a peer-to-peer solar finance company that offers loans to homeowners. One thing that's been lacking from the loans -- but included with leases -- is operations and maintenance so homeowners can switch to solar power without worry.
Enphase is using its monitoring capabilities to make sure the systems it services through the Mosaic partnership operate as planned. If they don't, Enphase sends out a crew to solve the problem either from its own fleet or through a third party.
Mosaic hopes this offering eases the friction of choosing a loan over a lease for installing solar, and for Enphase the cost is rolled straight into the up-front financing costs. It's an interesting move, but the question is whether a company like Enphase can really make a dent in this market, even if it is an early mover.
If successful, competitors will notice
The challenge for both Mosaic and Enphase is that they're new entrants in a market with big players. SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY ) is the big dog in residential solar, and while it focuses on leases now the company could easily transition to loans and also offer operations and maintenance. SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR ) recently signed a $200 million loan deal and has installed more solar systems with loans than Mosaic has financed in its history. Then there are the dozen or more other players in the market that could offer similar loans with operations and maintenance offerings.
As SolarCity and SunPower consider what offerings will work and what won't, I have to think that they're looking into expanding operations and maintenance offerings. They already provide such services for utility and commercial systems, as well as with their leases.
The bottom line is that if Mosaic or Enphase are successful with their offering competitors will notice and have the muscle to push them aside. I don't see how this offering will be successful unless it's taken up by more installers. But most of them have the manpower to perform those services themselves.
I like the innovative thinking, but this is a business model that will be easy to copy if successful. In solar, that's a recipe for disaster.
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