The greatest selling point for energy stocks through the years has been their limited volatility and the ability for investors to easily and accurately extrapolate their growth trajectories into the long-term future. However, this year, things may be a tad different. The raging debate between oil refiners and oil producers on whether or not to lift the 40-year crude oil export ban may produce varying and unprecedented results for different energy stocks.
On one hand, you have oil producers who want the export ban lifted in order to export some of the crude oil that is being produced in greater volumes domestically. On the other, you have oil refiners who currently enjoy a discount on domestic crude and fear that lifting the ban will translate into higher domestic crude prices, thereby lowering their profit margins.
Predictably, the debate on whether or not to change the 40-year energy policy will be priced into refiners, producers, and integrated oil companies going forward.
At such a time, investors need to increase their exposure to energy stocks that not only have clear growth paths, but that can hedge against the downside of the speculative mood that has engulfed the oil sector.
A buying opportunity?
Real Goods Solar (NASDAQ:RGSE) is a solar energy installer that targets both residential and corporate customers in Colorado, California, and the Northeast. The company is relatively small and doesn't offer a dividend. However, it has an interesting growth narrative ahead, and now could be a good time to jump on the wagon.
Why is this the case? In addition to being relatively cheap compared with mainstream energy players, Real Goods Solar is in a unique position to star in the broader growth narrative in the solar industry. According to the nonprofit Solar Foundation, U.S. solar companies added 20% more jobs in the twelve months through November. This is not only the biggest gain in the past four years, but also 10 times more than the national average for job growth.
The growing labor force in the solar industry signals the increased demand for solar energy. This is in part because of the declining costs of installation. The cost of installed solar equipment, for instance, has dropped more than 50% since the beginning of 2010, according to the foundation. Along with this, the Solar Energy Industries Association contends that U.S. solar capacity jumped 35% in the third quarter on increased large scale projects.
Real Goods Solar's pricing model will allow it to cash in on increasing solar energy demand. As fellow Fool Travis Hoium pointed out earlier, Real Good Solar sells projects to customer or leasing companies, leaving the financing part to other companies. SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY.DL), on other hand, finances the projects from its own pocketbook, controlling the entire installation process.
While SolarCity's model has its own merits, Real Goods Solar's shorter revenue cycle allows it to more effectively capitalize on the current rising demand for solar energy. In the third quarter of 2013, for instance, Real Goods Solar, which is significantly smaller than SolarCity, raked in $34 million in sales, compared to SolarCity's $48.6 million. This differential in top lines is not reflective of the fact that SolarCity installed a total of 78 MW during the quarter, which is more than seven times Real Goods Solar's 10.7 MW cumulative installations over the same period.
To put icing on the cake, Real Goods Solar recently completed the acquisition of Mercury Energy, a top solar integrator on the East Coast. This acquisition not only gives Real Goods Solar an opportunity to implement its growth strategy on a greater scale, but it also bolsters Real Goods Solar's financial position. Mercury adds an additional $12 million in net working capital, including more than $10 million in cash, without adding any debt.
Real Goods Solar not only presents an exciting growth story that is pinned onto the wider growth of the solar industry, but it also has a unique pricing model that limits its cash involvement, freeing its capital for more crucial expansion projects. In addition, Real Goods Solar's clear growth path provides security for energy investors at a time when there is a lot of speculation over oil refiners and producers.