There's no question that the solar industry is disrupting the electric utility business, but companies are handling that disruption differently. Last month, I highlighted how utilities like Arizona Public Service and Hawaiian Electric are already starting to fight back against solar power generation that they neither own, nor control.
But not every utility sees the solar industry as a threat. Some are finding ways to invest in solar to augment their business model, and an interesting ownership model is gaining popularity.
Integrys Energy bets on solar
The latest company to bet big on solar is Integrys Energy Group (NYSE: TEG), who is using an innovative offering from Clean Power Finance to get into the residential solar business. Integrys's subsidiary Integrys Energy Services is investing in a residential distributed solar fund that will use Clean Power Finance's technology for pricing systems and its network of installers to complete projects. This allows Integrys to sell its own brand through its own sales channels and invest in the fund that owns residential projects without building out the bidding and installation capabilities necessary to create the solar asset.
This deal will create another channel for selling solar and creates a direct competitor to residential solar leader SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY.DL). Integrys Energy Services will begin by selling residential systems in California, Hawaii, and New Jersey, which are high potential solar markets, but aren't Integrys' home turf. So, for now, I give SolarCity a big lead and don't think Integrys is a huge threat to upend the balance in solar.
But if utilities in markets where SolarCity is operating, or wants to expand, decide to sell their own residential solar systems, they have a distinct advantage. They already have a relationship with customers, it would save on another bill, and utilities could keep solar assets right on their balance sheets rather than sell them.
Utilities start to see the value of solar
Integrys isn't the only utility seeing the value in distributed solar. Edison International (NYSE:EIX) bought a stake in Clean Power Finance earlier this year, and also bought distributed solar developer SoCore Energy.
NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG) is another utility that's making a big bet on solar with 2 GW of projects in operation or under construction. It has a small leasing arm that offers similar residential solar leases as SolarCity, or now Integrys Energy Services.
If Clean Power Finance is successful in offering services that bring sales, financing, and installation together, then maybe utilities will be the big competitor to SolarCity and other residential solar companies.
Battlegrounds are set
We're starting to see the companies who will fight, and those who will embrace solar emerging, and it depends a lot on their current position. A regulated utility like APS sees solar as a threat to its regular return on generating and transmission assets, while the unregulated arm of Integrys or NRG sees solar as a huge opportunity.
When utilities invest in solar wisely, they can even unlock a higher rate of return than many other generating assets -- and often do so with long-term revenue contracts. That's not entirely different from the regulated utility model, and I think it's wise to embrace this disruptive force rather than spend millions of dollars fighting it.