Navigant Research Blog

Facing Solar Waves, Utilities Should Learn to Surf

Richelle Elberg — March 5, 2014

In my last blog, I described the relatively rapid fall that many incumbent telephone companies have suffered as wireless technology has replaced landlines as the dominant service providers for not only our voices, but also our data communications needs.

Why, as a participant in the electric utility industry, should you care?

Because the very same thing could happen to incumbent electric utilities, and maybe sooner than you think.  Solar panels and plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are spreading rapidly, allowing consumers to generate and even store their own power.  Prices are falling, and with or without government incentives, the penetration of renewable, distributed generation will continue to accelerate.  Storage will get better and commercial customers like Walmart will put panels across thousands of acres of rooftops.

All of this creates challenges for grid operations and (especially) electric utility business models.  (See my blogs on net metering and feed-in tariffs.)  As the fight over net metering has made abundantly clear, the century-old utility business model wasn’t designed for distributed generation – and this transformation is still in its early days.

Ride the Wave

But, couldn’t it also provide an opportunity?  In the first 10 years of wireless telecom service (according to surveys by CTIA), subscribership grew to just under 34 million.  In the second 10, it added 174 million, and since 2005, that figure has nearly doubled again.  That hockey stick phenomenon will happen in the solar and PEV industries, too.

NRG Energy, a retail energy marketer based in Princeton, New Jersey, has taken a proactive stance to solar.  Its NRG Solar division creates large-scale solar facilities and performs installations on commercial rooftops.  The NRG Residential Solar Solutions (RSS) division leases solar systems to homeowners, providing the panels, system design, monitoring, and performance guarantees, as well as several termination options (system removal, lease extension, or purchase).  RSS operates in 10 states, plus the District of Columbia, and has expansion plans in more states.  What’s more, NRG’s eVgo network is a privately funded electric vehicle infrastructure network of home charging stations and public fast charging stations.

NRG’s Alternative Energy division (which encompasses its solar activities) grew revenue to $83 million in 3Q 2013, up from $49 million the year before.  And while it still bleeds red ink, I can assure you that telcos lost money on their wireless divisions for many years before those units became the cash machines they are today.

Sizing the Competition

Vivant, SunRun, SolarCity, and SunPower are the big names among standalone solar financing and installation companies today; $1 billion was raised in 4Q 2013 alone for solar system financing.

SolarCity intends to grow its customer base to 1 million by 2018, while SunPower is reportedly about to announce a deal with Meritage Homes.  SolarCity earns about half of its revenue from solar system sales, with a low 5% operating margin, but it earns an attention-getting 66% margin on its lease business.

The level of competition and the public valuations of many of these solar companies demonstrate the market’s belief that solar (panels, financing, installation) will be a growth market for some time to come.

In order to enter the fray, regulated utilities will have to run their alternative energy ventures as unregulated subsidiaries (that’s how the telcos got into cellular), but the consolidated bottom line is what matters to investors.  And, as a consumer, I’m more likely to trust my solar installation and management to my longtime local power provider than an unknown, independent installer.  Ride the wave!

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