Tom Konrad CFA
Invest In What You Know
"Invest in what you know" is an old stock market adage. The
idea is that, if you have some personal knowledge of the real
economy, you can use that to make better investments.
How useful this adage is depends on how you apply it. If you
know more about a stock market sector than other investors because
of "what you know," it's possible to make better investments because
you may be better at spotting future trends. If, on the other
hand, you feel you know a sector because you buy its products, you
may get caught up in a herd mentality and end up buying a company
(along with a bunch of its other customers) just when the popularity
of its products peaks along with its stock price.
I'm a recent customer of the solar industry. Last week, my
solar installer flipped the switch on my new solar PV system, and my
meter started spinning backwards. Like many new solar owners,
I'm a bit obsessed the system. Here, I'm channeling that
obsession into an article about the companies that supplied parts of
the system, and what we can learn about their prospects.
Solar systems are far from uniform, and vary significantly depending
on energy usage, location, available space, and local
incentives. My system is a little larger than average, at
6.6kW. I have a fairly high load because last year I installed air
source heat pumps
to supplement my oil-fired boiler. My
2 person, 2000 square foot house in New York's Hudson River Valley
uses an average of 13 kWh a day outside the heating season, but and
another 10-20 kWh a day during the four month heating season, for an
average annual usage of 21 kWh/day.
According to my calculations using PVWatts
, my 6.6kW system
should produce just about that much in an average year, but my solar
installer used more conservative numbers, and expects it to produce
about 20kWh a day. Below is a monthly production and usage
chart based on my calculations.
Because my usage is highest in the winter, and my production is
highest in the summer, I will be relying on net metering rules to
"bank" kWh produced from April to October to be used for heating
from November to March. My utility requires that this kWh bank
be trued up once a year, which I will set in March or April.
I've shown the true-up here in March, where I'm "billed for"
negative kWh (i.e. paid by the utility.)
This "banking" is actually to the utility's advantage because, not
only do they effectively get an interest-free loan of electricity
for an average of 6 months, but New
York electricity prices
tend to be a little higher in the
summer than in winter. Since 2005, only 2014 had a higher peak
winter price than the previous summer peak. Last year's
exceptionally high winter prices were caused
by locally high natural gas prices, in turn fueled by the polar
vortex. The utility also benefits from daily production
production is highest when hourly prices are highest in New York
Although the utility receives significant benefits from my solar
system, it is also a good deal for me, mostly due to Federal and
State incentives. If I assume electricity price increases completely
offset system maintenance costs (I expect them to more than pay for
any maintenance), my expected internal rate of return over 30 years
will be 9.7% (or 8.3% over 20 years.) The payback of my
initial investment will take about 9 years. Without subsidies, the
30 year return would have been a paltry 1.9%, with a 22 year
I expect that many New York solar systems have even better returns
than mine, because I made a number of decisions which raised cost
without increasing electric production. First, I wanted to
reserve part of my roof for a future solar hot water system, so I
chose somewhat more expensive monocrystalline panels in order to
make the most of the roof space I was willing to use. Second,
I decided to go with SMA TL-US strong inverters rather than
microinverters because TL-US inverters can provide some back-up
power when the grid goes down. Third, I had to do some
upgrades to the frame of my garage and attic of my old (1930) house
to support the extra weight of the panels. Finally, I wanted
an awning to protect a third floor balcony from rain, and so I had
my installer project the edge of the panels past the edge of the
roof to serve this function, making the installation more difficult.
I don't follow any of these stocks closely, so I decided to ask
my panel of professional green money managers.
SMA Solar Technology (S92.DE, SMTGF)
My inverters were from SMA Solar Technology AG (S92.DE,
SMTGF), a Sunny Boy 3000TL-US-22 and a Sunny Boy 3800TL-US-22.
These cost about $0.50/W and account for about 13% of the total
There was some real disagreement about SMA. Shawn Kravetz
manages a solar focused hedge fund at Esplanade Capital LLC in
Boston, so I pay attention to his thoughts on solar related
stocks. He notes that SMA Solar Technology's string
inverters have been losing market share to suppliers of
micro-inverters and optimizers.
These competing technologies make better use of the power produced
when power production from panels is not uniform, such as when the
panels are partially shaded. Fortunately for me, I have very
little shading, and living in a rural area, I wanted to be prepared
for long-term power outages. To the right, you will see an
image of me testing the inverter's ability to power my furnace on a
cloudy day (it was raining at the time.) The furnace draws
340W, which is about 8% of the rated capacity of the larger of my
two solar arrays. I expect that I should have enough power to run
the furnace for an hour or two even on cloudy winter days, as long
as I keep them clear of snow.
Frank Morris, the former portfolio manager of the Global Ecological
mutual fund (EPENX) describes the technology as a dramatic
With the flip of the switch, SMA's TL-US inverter will
send up to 15A of 110V power to your home outlet even during a
power outage. This feature is unique to the SMA TL-US line
When there is a power outage, a solar roof with SMA TL-US line of
inverters can provide electricity to your home, independent of the
grid. During hurricane Sandy, millions lost electricity-and
the thousands of solar roofs in Sandy's wake were useless: most
inverters lose function when the grid is down. The SMA TL-US
line of inverters represent a dramatic innovation for the world
solar market. The convergence of resilient distributed
affordable solar electricity generation, affordable electricity
storage, and breakthroughs like the SMA TL-US line of inverters,
should have a dramatic effect on the global utility industry.
Thomas Moser, CFP® of High Impact Investments®
in Tucson, Arizona likes SMA most of the companies listed from a
buying viewpoint, also because of its applications to backup
power. He says, "Energy storage will be needed as
individuals and companies look to disconnect from utilities.
The level of concern regarding energy backup systems in case of
total utility shutdown will rise, especially with worldwide
threats capable of shutting down the grid. SMA's R&D is
well ahead of the curve on energy storage." That said, he
sees many more attractive clean energy buying opportunities right
now, and says SMA's stock price would need to decline from the
current €22 and change to around €15 before he'd buy it.
My panels are 22 LG 300W
Mono X® NeON Modules. These are fairly high-end
modules using 60 monocrystalline silicon cells with a total module
efficiency of 18.3%. The panels can be bought retail for
approximately $1.50/W, and account for approximately 40% of the
total system cost. LG Electronics is a listed Korean
conglomerate with symbol 066570 on the Korea SE.
LG is a large conglomerate. My experts did not feel that
its solar segment was a large enough part of its overall business
to make an investment case. That's not to say they don't
know anything about the company: Kravetz knew mine were from LG's
MonoX® line just from of the power rating.
Electric SE (SU.F, SBGSF)
Schneider Electric SE (SU.F,SBGSF.)
supplied five Square
D brand Solar DC disconnects and a circuit breaker box for
combining the current from the two inverters. I'm guessing
these amount to between 10¢ and 30¢ per Watt, or about 5% of the
total system cost.
Schneider makes a number of clean energy related products, but
the experts I consulted were not familiar with the company or did
not think clean energy is a significant enough part of its
business to make an investment case.
ABB Group Ltd. (ABB)
My installer included an analogue "dumb" meter from ABB Group (ABB)
to keep track of total system output (the SMA inverters each keep
track of their own energy production.) The system also required
200 to 300 feet of conduit and electrical boxes from Carlon, a
brand owned by ABB. These components likely cost between 10¢ and
15¢ per Watt, or about 3% of the total system cost.
Although ABB is another conglomerate, it has enough cleantech to
get the attention of my panel. Jan Schalkwijk, CFA® of
JPS Global Investments in Portland, OR says,
ABB touches on renewables and energy efficiency in
various ways, with offerings such as solar inverters, HVDC [high
voltage direct current] links that connect renewables power
sources to the grid (ABB has installed 13 of the 14 HVDC projects
commissioned worldwide to date), offshore wind power projects, and
high efficiency motors, among other power products. In the most
recent quarter, orders were up 13% year-over-year, half of which
came from a HVDC ink project in Canada to connect renewable power
sources to the North American grid. Another large project in
progress is the 900MW DolWin2 offshore wind converter platform
that will be installed in the German North Sea. Recently the
company has faced industry headwinds related to offshore wind in
Europe, unprofitable EPC projects [engineering, procurement, & construction, i.e. projects for which ABB was primarily responsible for construction] for solar (which it is
discontinuing), and contracts that did not have equitable risk
sharing with partners. The company is aware of these issues and is
changing its strategy to de-risk and improve profitability of the
Power Systems business. With a dividend yield of 3.6% vs 3% for
the peer group, a strong competitive position, and a relative
valuation 5-10% below peers (averaging relative P/E, EV/EBITDA,
P/B, EV/Sales, P/CF) ABB looks like a decent bet. Risks include
unfavorable currency movements (Swiss Franc), further trouble in
offshore wind, and failure to deliver on strategic refocus of the
Power Systems business.
Jim Hansen at Ravenna Capital Management in Seattle, Washington
also owns ABB, and "will be buying again if the price drops."
Moser is more skeptical, and comments that its recently announced
billion stock buyback looks like "putting a fresh coat of
paint on an old truck."
Itron, Inc. (ITRI)
Although not directly involved in the project, my utility
replaced my meter with a new I-210+c
SmartMeter from Itron, Inc. (ITRI)
to support net metering. I don't know what this cost the
utility, but it was probably not significant as a percentage of
system cost, likely only a few pennies per watt.
Itron makes a full range of electric meters, and was more popular
with clean energy investors when residential smart grid was a
greater focus of attention than it is today. Hansen has
owned it in the past, but does not currently. Moser says the
stock does not interest him because its stock performance is "as
lumpy as its sales."
Installer, Balance of System
The remaining approximately 40% or $1.60/W of the system cost was
overhead, labor, equipment rental, permitting, and components such
as racking (Unirac). wiring, and
which are made by privately held companies. My installer is
a local privately held company, Solar Generation.
If you have a strong opinion about the advantages of
microinverters vs. string inverters, or think that the growing
interest in grid resilience may allow SMA to reverse some of its
recent losses, there will likely be stock market profits to be
made by betting on one of these trends, but I don't have the
confidence to put my own money on one or the other. While my
own strong preference is the added resilience, companies selling
solar leases or power purchase agreements are only paid for
producing energy, not for the resilience SMA's products
bring. But the recent trend away from leases and towards
other forms of solar financing may allow more homeowners to opt
for resilience over maximizing production, as I did.
Of the others, only ABB is in my own portfolio, as it has been
for years. Like Schalkwijk, I like the valuation, dividend
stream and solid position in many aspects of the electric grid.
Even ABB's dividend stream does not come close to matching the
income stream (in the form of lower electricity bills) of my solar
system itself. Sometimes an industry's products are far
better investments than the industry itself. For me, the lesson of
this whole exercise is that companies which invest in solar
installations are likely to be better investments than the
companies that provide the parts.
Disclosure: Long ABB.
DISCLAIMER: Past performance is
not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results.
This article contains the current opinions of the author and
such opinions are subject to change without notice. This
article has been distributed for informational purposes only.
Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein
should not be considered as investment advice or a
recommendation of any particular security, strategy or
investment product. Information contained herein has been
obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not