Tom Konrad CFA
Solar installation is a low margin business with low barriers to entry, but consolidation may bring competitive advantages in some sectors of the market.
I recently took a look at Principal Solar (PSWW.PK), a reverse-merger solar developer roll-up play, and found it remarkably lacking in hard data. But there are a handful of other publicly traded pure-play solar installer/developers, as well as vertically integrated solar manufacturers like First Solar Inc (FSLR) which have been developing projects with their own panels, and solar developer-operators like Etrion Corp. (ETRXF.PK).
The Shape of the Solar Installation Industry
While Principal may not be providing enough information at the moment to make an informed investment decision, I wanted to decide if the roll-up strategy made sense in the solar developer space. To do that, I talked to two sources actively involved in the space: Stephen Irvin, the CFO of the privately held solar installer Namaste Solar in Boulder, CO, and Rick Coen, principal at Empower Solar Consulting, a company that manages solar projects for clients such as builders, real estate developers, and government entities who have a few of the necessary ingredients (such as capital or real estate) for a project, but lack the necessary technical or organizational expertise.
Together, Irvin and Coen paint a mixed picture of the industry for prospective developers. At the small, residential scale, there are practically no barriers to entry. There is a wealth of training material available, both in person and online which enables even a one-man contractor to become certified to install solar. At the larger, commercial scale, the main barrier to entry is capital, not expertise. According to Coen, there is a national trend towards the financiers owning the solar project, and consultants like Empower can manage the project for them, and bring together all the necessary expertise to develop a project from the initial site assessment to final commissioning.
According to Irvin. the installer model looks a lot like a traditional contractor model. Gross margins are thin, from 15 to 30%, with residential systems typically receiving larger margins than commercial. Both see space in the current climate for a wide range of business models, driven by the immaturity of the industry and a wide diversity and frequent complexity of local codes and utility incentive programs that contractors must negotiate.
There are also advantages to scale. According to Irvin, large solar developers such as privately held Alteris Renewables have the buying power to negotiate better prices on solar panels, a significant advantage in a thin-margin business. Alteris was formed when private capital firm Riverside Partners rolled up a bunch of companies in the Northeast. He sees a shift towards commercial and utility scale projects, which also favor large firms because they have the balance sheet to provide the bonding capacity that large customers expect.
Public Solar Installers
Based on the above discussion, I’d guess the sweet spot for a publicly traded solar developer/installers would be a large scale, regional company, focused on a promising region and possibly residential solar installations (because of the higher margins.)
Promising markets include California, the Northeast, and Hawaii. The former two have strong incentives, while Hawaii’s expensive electricity means that they are already close to grid parity.
Although not a complete list, here are the publicly traded installers I’m aware of:
Real Goods Solar (RSOL)
Real Goods calls itself a “leading residential and commercial solar integrator” which was bought by sustainable retailer Gaiam (GAIA) in 2000, but spun off again in 2008. According to Irvin, they used the money raised in the IPO to “acquire 3 solar installers in California.” They also have a presence in Colorado, because of Gaiam’s presence there.
Real Goods reported a gross margin of 28.9% and their seventh consecutive quarter of profitability in Q1 2011, showing the effectiveness of the large-scale residential focused model. I think the company deserves deeper investigation.
Premier Power Renewable Energy (PPRW.OB)
Premier Power was founded in 2001 as the solar arm of home builder Premier Homes. Now they call themselves “a leading North American and European solar power company providing high performance solar panel systems with consistently high quality for our commercial, agricultural, industrial, government, utility and residential customers.” Recent press releases show that they have been completing large scale projects in California and Italy.
The company has a tiny $20M market cap, and an 8.2% gross margin on $87M sales. They are marginally unprofitable, but they show positive cash flow and no net debt, yet with their thin gross margins, I don’t anticipate a smooth or quick path to real profitability.
Principal Solar (PSWW.PK)
Principal Solar was discussed in detail here. Investors should stay away until adequate financial information is available.
Envision Solar International (EVSI.OB)
I first looked at Envision a year ago, at which point they needed to raise capital to build their business. They’re now reporting a healthy 36% gross profit margin, but on minuscule revenues of $347 thousand. An atypical solar integrator, the focus on licensing “solar trees” and other parking lot solar shading structures nationally. This may account for the out-of line gross margins of a solar integrator, as they focus mainly on engineering and leave the sale of solar panels to third party installers. However, given that their revenues are still a fraction of total expenditures (They lost $2.36M over the trailing twelve month period), these margins may not persist as they continue to scale their business.
Arco Energy Technologies Corp. (ART.V)
Arco was brought to my attention by J Peter Lynch after I wrote the initial version of this article. I have not investigated the company, but here is their profile from their website. “Acro Energy Technologies… is focused on the consolidation and growth of renewable energy companies, initially in the United States solar market. Acro Energy Tec
hnologies has initiated its acquisition campaign in the solar integrator market through its recent addition of Acro Electric, Inc., the 8th largest residential solar integrator in California. Also, it has closed an asset purchase agreement with Light Energy Systems in Concord, California. Acro Energy continues to actively evaluate suitable acquisition candidates across North America and Canada.”
The examples of Real Goods and Alteris show that there is a role for consolidators in the highly fragmented solar installer industry. But not all consolidators will succeed, and those that do are more likely to be steady cash earners, rather than high-flying growth machines. Do not expect to see a Google of solar installers any time soon, if ever.
If I were to invest in a solar developer today, the only real option would be Real Goods. I’d need to do more analysis before doing so, but the company’s financial ratios and strength look promising. My biggest concern would be valuation, since solar installation is a traditional low-margin business, but the glamour of solar is likely to attract unsophisticated investors drawn to the flame of solar’s bright future. At $2.42, Real Good is trading at a pricey 34 twelve month trailing P/E ratio, but an inexpensive forward P/E ratio of only 10. Yet forward P/E ratios only have meaning when (possibly inflated) earnings expectations are met.
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