Will NRG Energy be the next ten ton gorilla in solar leases?

NRG Energy, one of the most aggressive power companies to invest in solar projects, is considering getting into offering leases for solar panel roof systems for home owners and businesses. NRG Energy’s CEO David Crane tells Bloomberg that it is something that they’re “looking at in a very serious way,” and NRG Solar’s CEO Tom Doyle told me last month that the company has been inreasingly talking about financing options for solar roofs and in particular exploring the lease structure.
NRG Energy already builds solar panel projects for commercial and industrial building owners. Doyle told me that the company has been “heartened” by the amount of Fortune 300 companies that have wanted to install solar panels on their rooftops. Distributed solar panel systems have been gaining momentum, said Doyle, adding that they’ve been delivering higher growth than utility solar systems. In an interesting twist, that puts NRG Energy in grwoing competition directly with utilities, notes Bloomberg.
The emergence of the solar lease, or other financing options for solar, has helped unlock huge growth in solar panel rooftop installations in recent years. Essentially a third party, like SolarCity or Sungevity, raises a few hundred million dollar fund from a bank or a big company like Google (s GOOG), and uses that money to provide the up front capital for a home roof top system, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars to install. The homeowner doesn’t have to pay that upfront cost, but pays the solar leasing company a monthly bill that is usually lower than its former utility bill. Over time the bank or “the Google” gets paid back with a return that can be around ten to twelve percent.
As I reported last month, three quarters of the solar panels installed on home roofs in 2012 in California were financed and owned by these solar service companies, and not the home owner. These “third-party owned” solar systems collectively generated $938 million in revenues last year.
It’s one of the more lucrative businesses in the solar market these days. So why wouldn’t NRG Energy want to be in it. SolarCity (s SCTY), a former startup that has helped pioneer the business, went public in December 2012 at $9.25, saw its stock soar 40 percent on its debut day, and has now more than doubled to $18.57 Monday morning. Other companies that offer solar financing options include Sunrun, and Clean Power Finance.
The emergence of NRG Energy in the solar leasing business could be a real threat to the companies already operating in it. NRG Energy earned $1.59 billion last year, which was a decline from the previous year, but which is clearly far larger than the fairly new companies like Clean Power Finance and Sungevity.