The world is in the midst of a clean energy revolution, but low oil prices threaten to end the industry's boom.
Shares of solar project developer SunEdison (OTC:SUNEQ), in particular, have been under pressure. Investors are worried cheap crude could halt the company's expansion as renewable projects become less competitive.
Is the solar revolution over? For clues, let's dig a little deeper into SunEdison's latest earnings report and see what happened over the previous quarter.
Shining a light on SunEdison's numbers
SunEdison's fourth-quarter net sales came in at $610.5 million, up 10.7% year over year. Further down the income statement, the company's losses narrowed to $242.1 million. That was down from a $286.4 million loss during the same time last year.
SunEdison's core solar division also posted solid results. Net sales from the solar energy segment grew to $382.6 million during the quarter, up 5.7% from the prior-year period. Management credited this growth to higher sales volumes of solar energy systems and increased energy revenue from retaining more projects.
"During the fourth quarter, we continued our record of strong execution as we reached new quarterly and annual milestones by completing all-time highs of 383 MW [megawatts] during the quarter and 1,048 MW for the year while growing our pipeline to 5.1 GW [gigawatts] and our backlog to 2.6 GW," said SunEdison's President and CEO Ahmad Chatila.
There is an "interesting albeit unfounded correlation between oil prices and sentiment toward renewable-energy players," he explained.
"No. 1, oil is a transportation fuel, not a primary mover of power generation. No 2., the correlation between power prices and natural gas prices is relatively low."
That growth "should help dispel the myth that oil prices impact renewable-energy demand," Chatila said.
Two catalysts that could lift SunEdison
Of course, these are backward-looking numbers. We're only concerned about where the stock is going next. That said, this report revealed a number of potential catalysts that could lift SunEdison shares going forward.
First, executives hinted at the spin-off of a second "yieldco." A yieldco mimics the master limited partnerships of oil and gas companies. These businesses own solar power generation facilities and throw off most of their cash to investors.
This isn't the first time SunEdison has tried financial engineering to unlock shareholder value. Last year, the company spun off its subsidiary TerraForm Power (NASDAQ:TERP). The offering was popular with investors because of the business's steady dividends.
Another yieldco could do the same. Because these generation facilities tend to pay out stable dividend income, investors are willing to pay a premium for these assets as stand-alone entities. A spin-off would also free up a tremendous amount of capital for SunEdison to reinvest back into its faster-growing project management business.
In addition to hinting at another spin-off, the company also closed its $2.4 billion acquisition of First Wind during the quarter. As the SunEdison name implies, the company has historically been involved with solar power. But with this purchase, it is evolving into a diversified renewable energy business.
"The transaction, which has subsequently closed in the first quarter, has positioned SunEdison as the leading renewable power plant developer in the world." Chatila explained. It "will further accelerate our growth and be additive to our fourth quarter pipeline."
That alone is a good story, but it gets even better. First Wind is primarily focused on the United States, while SunEdison has operations all over the world. Chatila is not only acquiring a position in the domestic wind power industry, he can also leverage SunEdison's operations to take First Wind's expertise into new markets.
The Foolish bottom line
Executives did not elaborate on these initiatives in the conference call. However, management did promise to provide more guidance at the company's Investor Day event next week. In the presentation, shareholders should listen for more details on these possible catalysts, as they could lift shares further.