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Summary:

Sometimes disruption comes from something so simple in hind sight.

Solar panels are now remaking the energy equation in the U.S. and breaking records for installations every quarter: There were more solar panels installed in the U.S. over the last 18 months than the last 30 years. But when it comes to making money off of this solar boom, some of the largest energy companies in the U.S. have (so far) left money on the table.

Why? It wasn’t that they didn’t have access to some obscure panel technology patent that was invented years ago in a university lab. Or that they didn’t have deep knowledge of how cheap solar panels would one day become. It was a drop-dead simple business-model innovation that they — for whatever reason — didn’t jump on.

At the World Energy Innovation Forum at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. this week, the CEO of GE, Jeff Immelt, said during an onstage interview that GE had focused so intently on how bad the solar panel business was that they “missed SolarCity.” “My God I wish I had thought of that,” said Immelt.

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Immelt isn’t the only energy leader that has been thinking about SolarCity. The CEO of NRG Energy, David Crane, told me during an interview earlier this year that NRG wants to be as big or bigger than SolarCity in its newly launched residential solar financing and installation business, which is similar to the one that SolarCity founded in 2006.

If you haven’t heard of it, SolarCity is the now-public company founded by South African entrepreneurial brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive; their cousin Elon Musk is SolarCity’s chairman. SolarCity has built a business off of financing and installing solar panels on the rooftops of buildings owned by families and businesses.

SolarCity can provide the upfront financing for the solar system so that the customer doesn’t have to put any money down to get the panels, and this is the key that has unlocked the solar panel business. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for a solar panel system, the customer pays SolarCity for the cost of the solar energy on a monthly basis, which can be less expensive than what they’ve been paying the local utility. Depending on the deal, the contract can last a couple decades.

SolarCity NASDAQ

In its recent earnings report last week, SolarCity said it had more than doubled its revenue to $63 million for the quarter compared to last year while cutting its losses for the quarter almost in half to a loss of $24 million (from $41 million last year), and it also raised its guidance for the year. SolarCity has a goal of becoming one of the largest suppliers of electricity in the U.S., and it’s on its way to getting there — it says it will exit 2014 with more than 2 gigawatts of cumulative solar power deployed. The company went public in late 2012 at $9.25 per share, and it’s now trading just under $50 per share.

SolarCity actually didn’t even pioneer this business model. That was SunEdison — Jigar Shah founded SunEdison in 2003 with a new financing model called the solar power purchase agreement (PPA). SunEdison was acquired by solar materials maker MEMC in 2009 for $200 million.

When I tweeted about Immelt’s confession this week, Shah tweeted in response: “@jeffimmelt and I keynoted an MIT panel together in 2007, he didn’t miss SunEdison he ignored it.” Shah has even written a book about how to get wealthy off of clean energy and climate, and hint: a lot of it is about the business model.

Several years ago GE was actually in the solar panel business, and was working with partners on various types of manufacturing. GE wanted to make solar power as big of a business as its wind power division selling wind turbines (which is huge). But for companies that were making solar cells, wafers and panels, the bottom dropped out of that market a couple years ago. GE put many of its solar manufacturing plans on hold as the market got ugly.

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Massive Chinese solar manufacturing companies — propped up by low cost government loans from the Chinese government — were making more solar panels than there was world demand for and they were making them below market value. The cost of silicon, the main ingredient in traditional solar panels, also cratered, making solar panels cheaper than they had ever been. This was a terrible time for solar manufacturing companies — like (infamously) Solyndra, but also two dozen others that are much larger — but it was a great time to be a company in the business of installing and financing super cheap solar panels.

The good news for huge energy companies like GE and NRG Energy is that it’s not too late to get into the business of installing and financing solar panels on rooftops. Yes, there are big brands developing the market like SolarCity, and it’s starting to get competitive and crowded. The more established companies are gearing up — just this week SunRun, another solar financing player, announced that it has raised another massive equity funding round of $150 million.

But the market for solar panels is just at the very beginning in both the U.S. and the world. NRG Energy launched its residential solar financing and installation company more formally earlier this year (though had been trying to do it in fits and starts over the past couple of years), and Crane sees the market as pretty wide open. He told me NRG is trying to learn from some of the fast moving and innovative large internet companies like Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook that have managed to stay nimble and industry-leading despite being so large and so consumer-facing.

The fact that GE and NRG Energy missed this business model innovation the first time around isn’t all that surprising. It’s the century-old tale of entrepreneurs and startups moving faster, thinking more creatively and operating more flexibly than big conglomerates — and winning. This of course has happened in countless business over the centuries, causing massive disruption in industries like telecom, video distribution and photography.

But that it’s happening in energy and clean power right now is exciting because it shows that the entrepreneurial spirit can have a fundamental affect on the huge and entrenched energy sector. Which gives hope that there might be a way to disrupt climate change after all.

  1. I think you get more sun in the States than we do in Canada. Great way to go. How are you going to get around the infrastructure? (Electric companies, gas companies etc.) Is this an off grid situation?
    Leslie

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    1. Alexandr Shevtsov Friday, May 16, 2014

      Germany has the sun no more than Canada but has the world’s largest solar energy.

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      1. To be sure it does. Clearly the way to go.
        Leslie

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        1. If you check you facts, you will see that Germany is abandoning solar and wind due to the very high cost and ratepayer revolt.

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          1. Solar and wind are having a hard time here as well. Our government is in heavily with big oil.
            Leslie

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            1. It is the same in Jamaica that has 365 days of un and wind ……

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            2. Leslie, why does everyone say the government is in heavy with oil? Aren’t we all, can’t you imagine what would happen to the economy if we quit using oil? just think of everything (all the byproducts) that are made from oil, gas and diesel are only about half of what comes out of a barrel. just look sometime all the products that use some portion of the barrel, and as with anything finding a substitute will naturally drive the price of everything up, (again), just as wind and solar have driven it up in the US. My electric is nearly double from just 5 years ago. after Obama was elected 3 new area coal fired power plants were scrapped and all the utilities went with the wind towers to get the carbon tax credits, and away went cheap energy. If everyone would explore all aspects of alternatives instead of using human emotions to drive decisions instead of good thought.

              Dean

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            3. Hi Dean,
              we blame governments because they endorse financially with subsidies, various parts of the economy. Right now our government in Canada is pushing for the pipeline for the tar sands. We need more research for clean energy within our own countries. Our Provincial Government went with wind power and solar but the research was not done here, it was done off shore. It was very costly. Another thing our Provincial Government did was to partially build two gas fired power plants and they scraped them before they were finished, [paying more than they should have if completed]. because of an election. They didn’t listen to the people saying they were NIMBYs. when the election came they started to listen to the people.They should never have considered putting a power plant near schools hospitals and residential areas. No I don’t blame the people because we do the best we can with what we have. Our governments only listen to the people when there is an election.
              Leslie

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          2. arthur qwenk Friday, May 16, 2014

            You are totally correct.Europe can not afford the farce and cost of “Unreliables” and feckless “Weather Power”.
            Ignorance of the public and politicians is bliss in the energy market.
            Watch the public utilities try to over regulate or eliminate residential solar, in favor of heavily subsidized grid scale wind and solar.
            Grid scale Wind production tax credits should be killed, as the industry is still not viable after decades of scamming the tax dollar.
            Residential and small scale solar where able is now viable for those seeing the value of it.
            Natural gas and nuclear will solve our energy issues in either case.

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            1. simplymichael Friday, May 16, 2014

              Yes, Europe should rely more on natural gas, that way Putin can hold them over a barrel anytime he wants to!

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            2. Russia already supplies them with 34% of their natural gas. 38% of their oil and 43% of their lumber. (World Trade Federation).

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            3. William Dezwijger Monday, May 19, 2014

              THORIUM, Pal, Thorium, look it up on YT. Small power packs, no radiation, solar is just a gimmick. In Europe they don’t calculate the cost of back up systems, they should, same as wind energy.

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            4. Solar and gimmick do not belong in the same sentence. It is a nearly perfect distributed generation technology.

              Thorium could very well be the future, but solar is the now. You need a couple decades of proven installations before any technology will scale.

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          3. d from birmingham Saturday, May 17, 2014

            Actually that isn’t true at all. Germany is in fact expanding the solar and wind.

            The cost of those is drastically dropping. The systems pay for themselves in three to five years. Wind systems have to be turned off during high winds since so much power is generated the grid can be fried since the grid is unable to handle the increase in power.

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            1. “Actually that isn’t true at all.” Correct, fossil fuel proponents just make stuff up and figure if they constantly repeat a lie with enthusiasm, it will eventually become the truth. It is partially successful because of the way the media treats everything as a debate. Germany also recently generated 74% renewable power, power which did not have to be imported from unreliable allies and does not have health and environmental costs.

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            2. Boy, have you been drinking the koolaide. Germany is building 6 new coal fired power plants. The ratepayer revolt forced this. High energy rates have hurt their vaulted manufacturing. They average less than 20% from alternatives year around and now have aging equipment. Wind and solar both decrease output with age (especially wind).

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          4. Manfred Gebhard Sunday, May 18, 2014

            There is no ratepayer revolt in Germany.
            12 000 people demonstrated in Berlin a week ago to show Merkel and Gabriel:
            “Don’t fuck up the Energiewende”

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          5. Lindsay lies. Germany is abandoning nuclear power completely by 2020, not renewable power, DUHHHHH!

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          6. SInce you believe that ‘the facts’ show solar and wind are too expensive and are causing a taxpayer revolt, here is a study showing otherwise. http://www.platts.com/latest-news/electric-power/london/analysis-german-2013-wind-solar-power-output-26598276
            Did you get your ‘facts’ from a denialist website funded by the Kochs?

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      2. That is because of massive government funding which has in turn drove the cost of energy in Germany up 805 while doing NOTHING for the climate.

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      3. And Germany is also having an energy crisis due to needing to buy even more fossil fuels from Russia.

        http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/03/14/germanys-green-energy-disaster-a-cautionary-tale-for-world-leaders/

        Nothing wrong with Solar in that you need a roof made of something, why not solar panels? As long as the components to tap that captured power into your grid is not too expensive, then put it on every roof, even in northern countries. But don’t confuse this with solar and wind and such being the energy solution, its just a part.

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        1. Lindsay – You are about four years behind the times. Solar is now cheap and ready for widespread adoption even without any subsidies. Not everywhere (Pacific NW is a good example) but most places. Also of course always worth mentioning is the fossil fuel subsidies are a permanent part of the tax code whereas the renewable ones expire.

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      4. Robert Wyatt Bogart Sunday, May 18, 2014

        and Germany is going to coal, much cheaper energy, solar isn’t ready yet

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        1. Cary Lichtman Monday, May 19, 2014

          liar

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    2. Solar users feed excess energy back into the grid. The amount a user consumes when there is no sun is taken from the energy credit that is tallied from what users feed into the grid. At the end of the year, solar users either get a bill for the difference if they have used more than they produced, or they get a check from the power company for the extra energy they produced but didnt use.

      It’s great.

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      1. They had a similar program in Canada but they are beginning to faze it out. That maintains the infrastructure. You would still be on the grid. You would have difficulty buying the solar panels unless you went through the system.
        Leslie

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      2. Some of these posters have no concept of Return on Investment, The only way PV panels work for a home owner is if somebody (government or ratepayer) gives you most of the panel. You guys need to diversify where you get your information. Do you believe in the tooth fairy also.

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        1. The only way fossil fuels are competitive is due to their massive tax subsidies and the ability to externalize additional massive costs, making the rest of us pay for their externalized problems, which would have reached energy parity for renewables years ago if accounted for. Oil/gas/coal get over 70% of all tax subsidies. http://www.misi-net.com/publications/NEI-1011.pdf. I spent $15,000 on insulation, solar and hydro on my property(I have a small creek) and my subsidies were another $6,000. My monthly bills were reduced from$240 monthly to $40 My ROI will achieve payback in less than 7 years. And I don’t externalize any costs, as fossil fuel using homeowners do. I live in the cloudy northwest in what is my retirement home, which I expect to live in for another 25 years.

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    3. Bill Zhangsun Saturday, May 17, 2014

      phasing out utility companies is the aim! Any home can be equipped with sufficient amount of solar panels to be energy-self-sufficient. As the technology improves in photo-voltech n battery storage, n power transforming, we wouldn’t even need gas stations!

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      1. Way to go! Hopefully they will be able to bring the costs down. Let’s leave those fossil fuels in the ground.
        Leslie

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    4. Most states have passed laws requiring electric companies to buy the excess electricity generated during the day. They are on the grid and buy at night and sell during the day.

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      1. They had a something like that in Canada but I think they fazed it out. It was very difficult to buy solar panels unless you took part in the program. Of course it was very expensive to buy into the program. They were trying to preserve the infrastructure. They weren’t too happy about people being off the grid.
        Leslie

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  2. swo8, these are, for the most part, all grid connected systems. Our grid is constantly being re-built and made smarter. Also, with the price of LiIon batteries constantly dropping, battery backup systems will further disrupt the utility model of doing business. Credit Elon and his team for pushing that envelope, too.

    I particularly liked Jigar’s comment about Immelt, “@jeffimmelt and I keynoted an MIT panel together in 2007, he didn’t miss SunEdison he ignored it.” This is so typical of traditional energy people thinking they have all the answers when they clearly don’t.

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    1. @Paul Scott, Thanks for the response and totally agree. On the flipside, in the Valley over the past 7 or 8 years there were a lot of entrepreneurs and investors who were more naively trying to disrupt energy (namely in manufacturing), but not understanding the industry, so got burned, too. So it goes both ways.

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      1. Bachelet Harlem Harlem Wednesday, May 21, 2014

        solar panel costs have been going down for a long time, but have not arrived at price parity

        likewise batteries r still xpensive

        improvements in natural gas and oil extraction via horizontal drilling, deepwater drilling have been magnitudinally more important

        I don’t really understand the science but if the IPCC is right global warming is going to happen and it’s going to suck

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  3. I doubt the established electrical utilities are shaking in their boots too much. 2 GW supplied by SolarCity is peanuts compared to the 450GW average daily electrical demand in North America. And SolarCity customers still draw from the grid at night.

    Withdraw the $7.5k energy tax credit that the IRS currently allows, and watch what happens to SolarCity…

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    1. need to up you total watt use by 5 times. in North America (2200gw)

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    2. The glass is half full. My home gris generates 1 MW of power monthly. best investment I ever mad. Will pay for itself in 5 years. Good for me and all the people going solar. Poor you still supporting big oil, gas and coal.

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      1. Darrol Houser Sunday, May 18, 2014

        1 MW what do you have for panels? A 5 KW system has 17 or so panels.

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        1. I am pretty sure he means 1 megawatt hour of power

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    3. Bill Zhangsun Saturday, May 17, 2014

      Still much cheeper than the billions tax payer fork out to built a nuke plant n much much more safer, n cleaner.

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    4. Withdraw the subsidies the fossil fuel industry receives and see……………

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    5. Eliminate the 70% tax subsidy the oil/coal/gas industries receive (http://www.misi-net.com/publications/NEI-1011.pdf) and watch what happens. Solar/wind only get 9% as does Nuclear.

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  4. This solar nonsense would not exist without huge government funding. Solar cannot provide asphalt for roads, make the plastics for your i-phone case or power your vehicle. Panels are mostly made in China using coal-fired power and the manufacture of panels emits SF3 and NF3 which are potent ghg’s. the company I work for installed a 2MW unit on a parking deck and it is terrible money loser and only provides 13% of the necessary utility load. There is no more room to put panels unless you want to destroy all the green space around the buildings.

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    1. And you think oil and gas would exist without huge government subsidies and massive tax breaks?

      How is a 2MW solar installation a “terrible money loser”? That doesn’t mean solar sucks, it means the financing, installation or upkeep (or combinations of such) weren’t done right.

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      1. Oil and gas did, does, and will exist without “huge government subsidies”. can you name by code the subsidies they get? it’s just a phrase thrown out, so until proven it’s just another lie.
        All companies get “tax breaks” as do you, or are the deductions (like the individual tax credit) you take a massive tax break?
        Given the current state of technology solar will only help offset peak demand.

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        1. This study by the conservative Nuclear Energy Institute shows you’re wrong on subsidies.http://www.misi-net.com/publications/NEI-1011.pdf
          Soon you parking lot and road surrounding you will also be solar energy producers.

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    2. That’s why I am excited about Solar Roadways. It seems like they have thought of everything… power obviously, internet, storm waste, no ice/snow, modular road repair and SO MUCH more. They are crowdfunding right now on indiegogo. My driveway or sidewalk could power my house/car and our streets can power our city.

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    3. Mark MacKinnon Sunday, May 18, 2014

      It’s funny you mention asphalt for roads when solar roads made of glass are being considered. Do you think cars can drive on only one material? Coat every road, parking space and building in PVs and the grid will have enough energy to power heavy industry!

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  5. And the other less talked about model is Community Solar. After all, less than 30% of homes have the correct exposure to install solar. Then there are apartment and condo dwellers. Community Solar, where individuals purchase shares in a larger, off site system enables much greater participation. But of course, Net Metering comes into play and that is where the train can be derailed.

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    1. You don’t need perfect exposure. Some homes are better situated than others but unless you are almost completely shaded, you can generally do something.

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  6. If this is such a wonderful business model then why does the management team say this:
    “Even if all that goes perfectly, the report contains an ominous warning: ‘If we do achieve profitability, we may be unable to sustain or increase our profitability in the future,’ it says.”

    and why:
    “TheStreet, a news service devoted to Wall Street, has rated SolarCity’s stock a D+ and urged investors to sell.”

    SolarCity $166 million in the red after losing $55 million in 2013
    March 20, 2014
    http://watchdog.org/133536/solarcity-loses-166m/

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  7. Good business models don’t lose money. Looks like a good short candidate.

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    1. Omar Eldahan Friday, May 16, 2014

      Amazon has been losing money for almost the entire past decade. Its business model has been solely focused on growth. Great business models lose huge amounts of money in the beginning, but become huge performers in the future.

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  8. Jerome Barry Friday, May 16, 2014

    Huh? A $7.5k energy tax credit for a solar install? Really? I got a bid on a solar install last month and the bid amount was $8000. If $7,500 of it is a tax credit, and my taxes do exceed that, doesn’t that mean that I’d be out $500 for the install with free electricity after that?

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    1. Jerome, the tax credit is for 30% of the cost of your system. I think the fellow was confused with the $7,500 incentive for electric cars.

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  9. John Doelman Friday, May 16, 2014

    But the ultimate test will come when the Utilities become distributors and balance only for the grid. We are very close to the end of huge power plants.

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  10. Yeah . . . it is great for Solar City. But it is a terrible deal for the consumer. The consumer would be better off with a home equity loan and give the job to the lowest bidder. That way the consumer gets the 30% Federal tax-credit and the consumer gets to deduct the interest on the loan.

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