SolarCity Thrives in Solar Power Sector

Sun Concept, Ampulse, Evergreen, Solyndra: the long list of defunct solar companies is enough to give pause to anyone trying to enter the business. But at least one company, SolarCity, has been succeeding where so many others have failed. Its secret? Staying away from manufacturing and focusing on installation.

SolarCity was founded in 2006 by Lyndon and Peter Rive, on the advice of their cousin, Elon Musk, the Paypal founder who went on to start Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and is enjoying something of a moment. Tesla Motors just posted its first quarterly profit. And SolarCity, which went public last January, has seen its stock more than triple.

Instead of designing solar panels, the Rive brothers decided to find ways to get solar panels onto people’s roofs. They settled on a sort of lease arrangement: SolarCity installs the panels for free on customers’ roofs and then sells them the energy the panels produce for the next 20 years, at a rate lower than charged by the local utility. As the owner of the panels, SolarCity also reaps the valuable tax credits associated with clean-energy production.

This business model, with high upfront costs for gradual returns spread out over decades, doesn’t lend itself to immediate profits. On Monday, the company posted a $31 million loss. So far investors seem patient.  “The stock is outperforming the results,” an analyst for Raymond James & Associates told Bloomberg. Lyndon Rive, in an interview with CNN, pointed out the irony that as soon as SolarCity show a profit, it’ll be a warning sign that recurring revenue has outpaced installations and the company has stopped growing.

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