What SolarCity’s financial results say about the challenges of building a solar retail business

What are the challenges of growing a solar installation business? SolarCity, which became a public company last December, provides some good insight into that as it reports earnings for the first quarter.

Raising funds to support its financial product offerings, singing up a greater number of new customers, expanding its operations, shortening the project completion process are some of the issues outlined by SolarCity’s executives during their discussion with financial analysts yesterday. These issues are nothing new, of course, but SolarCity’s financial results help to quantify some of their costs. Given that the solar market is still young, most of SolarCity’s competitors are private and often much smaller.

The California company installed more megawatts of solar energy projects during the first quarter than it initially anticipated (46MW instead of 41MW). But it didn’t raise its 2013 installation forecast, which remains at 250 MW. SolarCity boosted its first-quarter sales to $28.2 million but posted $31 million in losses.

“At this stage, we still find ourselves delivery constrained. It’s a matter of scaling our residential operation as well as bringing in our commercial projects on schedule that prevent us from increasing the guidance from 250MW right now,” said CEO Lyndon Rive during the conference call. “We are just focusing our operational capacity.”

SolarCity runs on a business model that is quite different from many of its competitors. The company does the sales, engineering, installation and maintenance with its in-house crew. Rivals such as Sungevity, OneRoof Energy, Sunrun and Clean Power Finance farm out the installation and maintenance work to roofers and other installers. Some of them want to build their brands and invest in marketing and sales to consumers while others sell their financial products and services to installers. Vivint, which already has built a large home security system business before getting into solar, operates more like SolarCity.

SolarCity’s model requires much more capital to scale up the business. It needs to hire and train more people, maintain trucks and other tools of the trade and set up shop in expanding its reach across the country. It also has to aggressively court consumers. The company does business in 14 states, and in March it announced a plan to set up its  operation in Nevada. The company saw its operating expenses grew from $24.7 million in the first quarter of 2012 to $34.5 million a year later. It serves home and business owners, schools and government agencies. It’s getting into the utility market, too. By the end of the first quarter, it has accumulated 54,416 customers. Most of the customers are in the residential space: 33MW of the 46MW it completed during the first quarter went to homes.

Raising enough money to finance leases and power purchase agreements is another big challenge for SolarCity and its competitors. With leases or power purchase agreements, customers pay a monthly fee for the electricity generated from the solar panels on their rooftop. They don’t the panels, however, since they didn’t pay for the high upfront costs of the equipment and labor that run around $20,000 for an average system in places like California.

Investors of the funds that support those financing options own the solar electric systems, and they get to take advantage of a 30 percent federal investment tax credit and count on revenues from the monthly payments for the duration of the contracts, which usually run 20 years. As of May 10, SolarCity has enough funds to finance 158MW worth of projects.

SolarCity is a formidable fundraiser. In its 2012 annual report, the company said it had raised $1.7 billion to finance installations since its inception from companies such as U.S. Bancorp, Google, PG&E and Credit Suisse. SolarCity also puts in its own money in some of the funds to finance the installations. The pressure to raise money consistently is even greater now that SolarCity is a public company and must not only show growth but also generates profits at some point. It would never want to be in a situation where the demand for its leases outstrips the funds available, something that happened to SunPower during the first quarter of this year.

SolarCity also needs to shorten the amount of time it takes from selling to installing each project. It has 195MW of backlog, some of which are planned as multiyear projects. But overall, the company wants to sell and install the equipment during the same month, Rive said. To accomplish that, the company is constantly looking for ways to simplify the installation process by using different designs for racks and other components. It also invests in software to reduce the time it takes to apply for permits and complete the sales process.

SolarCity has been an interesting company to watch since its start in 2006. It was one of a crop of venture-backed companies in the emerging residential solar market. Now, how well the company can grow its business and make a profit will be used by investors to evaluate other solar retail service companies that want to go public.