Transcript from Solar Finance & Investment USA panel discussion on Residential Solar. (See remarks from SunBlue’s Chris Hale highlighted in yellow.)
Representatives of four companies who are active in the US solar residential rooftop market had a wide-ranging discussion at a conference hosted by Solar Media in New York in late October 2015 about the different business models in use in that market and how each will fare if the 30% federal tax credit for solar is not extended past 2016. The conversation covered current installation costs, typical capital stacks, the cost of capital, barriers to entry and the potential for margin compression.
The panelists are Sylvain Mansier, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Sungage Financial, Albert Lu, vice president for structured finance and strategy at SolarCity, Jason Cavaliere, vice president for project finance at Sunrun, and Chris Hale, president of SunBlue Energy. The moderator is Keith Martin with Chadbourne in Washington.
MARTIN: We have three or four different business models represented on this panel. Let’s explore the differences. Sylvain Mansier, Sungage Financial provides financing to homeowners who want to install solar?
MANSIER: Several years ago, while a couple of the other firms on this panel were growing rapidly, we decided that as much as the third-party ownership model was serving the market and helping to grow it, there was unserved demand for homeowners who want to own their own solar energy systems.
Studies show that consumers like to finance purchases over $7,000. We were looking for an opportunity to deliver a point-of-sale financing mechanism that made the transaction process easy and accessible to homeowners who want to buy.
Three years ago at these conferences, we were always relegated to a corner. Today, the market is moving in our direction. The trend today is for direct ownership, and some of the bigger players are starting to offer products that accommodate it.
MARTIN: When you say you offer a point-of-sale mechanism, is it a website?
MANSIER: Qualifying for financing takes two minutes to fill out an online application, and you get a decision in 20 seconds.
MARTIN: Do you provide the financing? Do you make a loan that the homeowner uses to buy the solar system?
MANSIER: Yes. It is a direct loan product to consumers. It is a purchase money loan structure, so we take a collateral position that is similar to what the third-party ownership companies take. Funds are disbursed directly to the installation company on behalf of the consumer.
It is not a retail installment contract. It is a direct consumer credit obligation.
MARTIN: How long is the loan?
MANSIER: We have four different terms for five, 10, 15 and 20 years. Interestingly, the 20-year product is not our number one selling product. Even though for solar leases or power contracts a 20-year term makes sense, some people would prefer to pay off their systems over five or 10 years.
MARTIN: What do you take as security: a lien solely on the solar equipment or also on the house?
MANSIER: This is not a real-property-lien product. It is a security interest solely in the equipment.
MARTIN: What interest rate would I get if I come to you today looking for a 20-year loan?
MANSIER: Somewhere around 7%.
MARTIN: What about five years?
MANSIER: Just 4 1/2%.
MARTIN: Albert Lu, SolarCity is an integrated installer. It manufactures panels at this point?
LU: We have started to do so.
MARTIN: It installs, owns and then sells the electricity or leases the system to the homeowner. How many systems do you install a year?
LU: To date, we have about 300,000 customers. We have a target to get to a million by 2018.
MARTIN: Most of your customers sign power contracts or leases while you retain ownership. How much of your business today is direct sales?
LU: We have always sold systems on a cash basis to customers who prefer to own. Third-party ownership has been the dominant product, but about a year ago, we launched a loan product called MyPower. It is a 30-year loan to the consumer who owns the system and takes a federal tax credit for 30% of the system cost.
MARTIN: Is MyPower an installment sale or a loan? Do you provide the equipment as well as the financing?
LU: We sell the system to the customer, and then we provide financing for it over a 30-year term.
MARTIN: With the third-party ownership model, is your business proposition to the customer that he will pay 85% of what he pays his local utility for electricity?
LU: The customer proposition is we will sell you cleaner, cheaper power with a savings on your electricity bill of somewhere in the 15% to 20% range.
MARTIN: Jason Cavaliere, Sunrun is a lot like SolarCity, except I do not think you manufacture panels and you probably do not have the big workforce to install. You contract out installation, correct?
CAVALIERE: Sunrun started with a channel model where we subcontracted everything out to local installers. About two years ago, we bought our largest channel partner, REC Solar, and folded it into Sunrun. Today, we install about half our systems, and we use outside contractors for the other half.
MARTIN: How much of your business is third-party ownership versus direct sales?
CAVALIERE: We are way over 90% third-party ownership. We just started direct sales after the acquisition of REC Solar. We did not do any direct sales before that.
MARTIN: Albert Lu, what percentage of SolarCity’s business today is third-party ownership versus direct sales?
LU: Our MyPower product today is somewhere between 15% and 20% of our business on the residential side.
MARTIN: Jason Cavaliere, how many customers does Sunrun have currently? We heard 300,000 from SolarCity.
CAVALIERE: We just hit our 100,000th customer.
MARTIN: SolarCity hopes to get to a million by 2018. Does Sunrun have a similar target?
CAVALIERE: By 2018, we should be well over 500,000.
MARTIN: Chris Hale, you are a local installer. Are your roots as a roofing company or did you start as a solar company?
HALE: I worked in the legal industry doing electronic discovery. I took a couple classes at the Bronx Community College Center for Sustainable Energy. The more I learned about the solar industry –- this was in 2008 –- the more I saw the opportunity. I quit my job and started SunBlue Energy in 2009.
MARTIN: You focus solely on Westchester County in New York?
HALE: Westchester, Bronx, Rockland, Orange and Putnam.
MARTIN: What percentage of your business is residential?
HALE: It is about 80% to 90% residential in terms of number of customers.
MARTIN: How many customers do you have currently?
HALE: We have installed more than 100 systems.
MARTIN: Is all of it direct sales?
HALE: All direct sales. We are not against third-party ownership. We are offering a solar PPA, but most of our customers take out a loan and buy the system.
MARTIN: Sunrun does purely residential. SolarCity does both residential and commercial and industrial installations. Sungage is a consumer finance company. Its focus is residential. Are the only real business models at this point in the residential solar market third-party ownership, meaning solar PPAs and leases, and direct sales?
CAVALIERE: I think those are the only two choices to put solar on your house. Companies may specialize in different aspects of the business. For example, we partner with people that just do construction.
MARTIN: Let’s talk next about the market potential. I read somewhere that there are 44 million roofs in the United States that are potential places to put solar. Is that number correct?
LU: I am not sure of the exact number, but the point is the market penetration rate for residential solar is still very low. In a market like California where there has been high adoption, it is still in the 2% to 3% range.
MARTIN: Depending on whom you ask, anywhere between 49% and 80% of roofs are not suitable for solar installations because of shade or other reasons. This is creating a market for community solar arrays. What do you think is the correct percentage?
LU: A high number of homes get disqualified for many reasons, with the roof being one of them. Community solar is one of the more interesting new business models.
Solar PPAs and Leases
MARTIN: I want to drill down into the third-party ownership model. What is the current customer default rate under solar leases and PPAs?
LU: Less than 2% on a cumulative basis.
MARTIN: That is over how many years?
LU: For us, about nine years.
MARTIN: Jason Cavaliere, same question.
CAVALIERE: Our cumulative default rate has been about 1.2% over eight years.
MARTIN: There has been some discussion in the market about the number of solar PPAs and leases that are underwater. You start out offering the customer a 15% or 20% savings from retail rates, but the electricity price in the contract increases annually by a fixed inflation rate that can be anywhere from 0% to 3%. Over time, the price the customer is paying may be higher than the retail rate. What percentage of contracts is underwater currently?
CAVALIERE: Very few of our contracts are underwater, and they are not underwater because of that escalator. They may be underwater because of some pricing snafu that may have happened five years ago and that has been rectified since then.
It really does not make sense for any of us to price a contract that will go underwater at any time in the future, because when we raise funds behind these contracts, the rating agencies and the banks that do their scenario tests assume that if any contract goes underwater, then the PPA rate will be lowered to give the customer the same percentage savings from its retail electricity rate. We will not get a cash advance on that number.
It is in both of our best interests to make sure the customer keeps saving money.
MARTIN: How do you do that?
CAVALIERE: We give the customer 15% to 20% savings upfront, sometimes with a zero escalator and sometimes the escalator as high as 2.9%. If retail utility rates are increasing at 4% to 6% a year, you should never have a crossover point.
MARTIN: Albert Lu, same question. What percentage of solar PPAs or leases are underwater? How do you avoid such a situation?
LU: Very few contracts are underwater. Our base pricing today is 15% to 20% lower that retail rates in every market. For example, in California our residential PPAs are 15¢ with an escalator capped at 2.9%. Tier one electricity rates in California are around 17¢, and customers can be charged by the utility at rates as high as tier three.
MARTIN: So there is a lot of room before a customer would have to pay more than the retail rate.
LU: Correct, and as Jason mentioned, the fundamental premise in residential solar is that customers save money. The rating agencies look at it, all our financiers do, and they stress test the numbers to ensure that customers will continue to save money.
But let’s play it out and say that somebody is underwater. That is not a contract default. You would end up renegotiating the rate to keep the customer happy.
MARTIN: Solar PPAs and leases have had terms for the most part of 20 years. Do you see any pressure to extend the term?
LU: One of the biggest hurdles in getting a customer to sign up for solar is the 20-year agreement. I think very few contracts are that long. It is a lot easier to refinance a 30-year mortgage than a 20-year lease or PPA. The push today is to look at other types of products that have shorter terms.
I would not be surprised to see a move to shorter-term contracts over the next few years as more financing tools become available to the solar companies.
MARTIN: Let’s move to direct sales. One of the problems with the solar lease or solar PPA is the pricing is a function of retail electricity rates. Solar panel prices have been dropping while retail electricity rates have been increasing, and that seems to be driving a shift to direct sales. People would rather price based on the cost of the equipment. Do you have any sense of how powerful a shift is taking place? Albert Lu, you said as much of 20% of SolarCity’s business currently is direct sales.
LU: They are different groups of customers. It is a different customer who signs up for a lease or PPA versus one who wants to own the system. One views it as an energy payment, and one views it as an asset or an improvement to his home.
MARTIN: Sylvain Mansier, do you have any data on how strong a move there is to direct sales, if in fact such a move is occurring?
MANSIER: Direct ownership is often sold as monthly energy savings, the same way that a solar lease or PPA is. A lot of our customers are saving 30% to 40% off their monthly energy bills, once they take into account the federal tax credit, which we bridge finance to help them do that.
Chris Hale might be able to share sales practices of his team. The focus is always on the size of the monthly payment.
MARTIN: How does a consumer decide on ownership versus a solar lease or PPA? Albert said it is a question of whether the customer wants to buy energy or own assets.
MANSIER: I am not sure that homeowners make a huge distinction about who owns the asset, although some homeowners would prefer not to have a third party owning assets bolted on their roofs. I think the purchase decision for many folks ends up being how much am I saving?
Intuition tells us you may be happy to have savings over 25-plus years, but that doesn’t mean you want to finance the system over 25-plus years.
The value proposition is easily communicated in the form of monthly savings. Some customers care more about lifetime savings. They do not really care about how much they will save today. They just want to stop paying the utility as soon as they can, and if that means they pay off their solar panels in five years and then they will not have another bill for the next 20, then that is what some people want.
Our job as a consumer finance company is to meet consumer preferences. We try to match the financing options we offer to consumer preferences.
MARTIN: Chris Hale, how do you find your customers?
HALE: Mainly through word of mouth. Happy customers lead to more customers. They are very comfortable with us. We are the local guy. They know us.
Other than that, we do a lot of the same things as every other company. We have bought leads over the internet. We have been trying to become more visible in the community. I run to work every day. More of our employees work nearby. We become known in many different ways, but mainly by word of mouth.
MARTIN: How do you compete with the big guys, the SolarCitys and Sunruns? They are out combing the same neighborhoods.
HALE: Maybe we should ask them how they compete with us. [Laughter]
MARTIN: Is it a hard competition for them?
HALE: A customer makes a different decision when he or she decides to go with a SolarCity or Sunrun or with a local installer like us. They are selling you a 20-year service agreement. They will take care of the system on the roof, and you will save money.
With Sungage, the customer borrows and is looking to amortize the system cost over 12 or 15 years and to be in the black from day one.
Then you have customers who want to pay cash and see the long-term investment. They bought their houses. There is no reason to rent a system, so they decide to purchase a system and pay in cash. They are saving money from day one on electricity.
MARTIN: Do you offer financing?
HALE: Yes, we do.
MARTIN: On what terms?
HALE: We actually engaged with Sungage earlier this year because there is state-backed program called Green Jobs Green New York that allows homeowners to take 15-year loans and repay them through their utility bills. The program was expiring. We reached out to Sungage to carry on with the loans. Then the New York program got extended.
MARTIN: Small companies always are strained for capital. Is it a struggle to get the capital you need to keep going?
MARTIN: Are there pressures to consolidate? Do you get approached by larger companies to sell?
HALE: No one has approached us.
MARTIN: Take note, Jason Cavaliere and Albert Lu. Let’s move to another topic, which is the challenges ahead. The solar investment credit is currently 30%. It will drop to 10% in 2017 unless Congress extends it. Albert Lu, is the third-party ownership model viable after 2016 if the credit is not extended?
LU: Costs have to come down significantly in order for the current customer proposition still to make sense. We have laid out a cost target curve that will put us at $2.50 a watt as an all-in cost by the end of 2016 in order to have a viable business in 2017 with a 10% ITC. Unless you can get to that cost level, it will be very difficult to operate a business at scale.
MARTIN: Jason Cavaliere, do you agree that $2.50 is key?
CAVALIERE: I think we are scheduled to hit $2.49 by the end of 2016. [Laughter]
One of the interesting things about direct ownership versus third-party ownership is if the current law does not change, then the investment tax credit that supports the third-party ownership model goes from 30% to 10% while the residential solar credit that supports direct ownership goes from 30% to zero.
MARTIN: So you think Chris Hale will not be in business at that point?
CAVALIERE: Not in his current form or his market will shrink significantly. It is not that small installers cannot compete with us right now, but they will not be able to compete against a solar PPA that has a 10% subsidy from the investment credit plus an additional subsidy from depreciation from which their customers are not benefiting.
MARTIN: Sylvain Mansier and Chris Hale, that’s smack talk. Do you have an answer? [Laughter]
MANSIER: I think everyone up here would agree that the greatest opportunity to reduce cost is in soft costs. Most of the soft costs are really sales and marketing costs. They are not the labor.
Let’s dissect the sales and marketing costs. According to GTM Research, roughly half the marketing leads across the entire industry come from referrals. The other 50% come from direct marketing campaigns, marketing partnerships and other channels. Not every company sources customers the same way. They have a very different cost structures from a sales and marketing standpoint.
For a company like Chris Hale’s that has mostly referral-based lead generation, the average cost of customer acquisition is something like $250. The industry average is $3,000. That is a huge delta. The most expensive way to acquire customers is direct marketing.
MARTIN: That is $3,000 for what unit of measurement?
MANSIER: $3,000 for an average six-kilowatt residential solar installation.
MARTIN: The solar system costs how much: $40,000, $50,000?
MANSIER: If you are at $3.50 a watt, then the all-in cost is roughly $25,000.
MARTIN: That is $25,000 of which $3,000 is the cost for finding the customer. That seems low. Albert Lu, does that seem low to you?
MANSIER: That is the average. This is the point, Keith. Some companies are way above average. Other companies are way below average. The main differentiating factor is how they get their leads.
MARTIN: Albert Lu, what percentage of the cost of the average SolarCity system is customer acquisition?
LU: We publish our costs every quarter. Looking back two quarters, I think our all-in costs were in the $2.90 range with sales being about 50¢ a watt.
The thing to keep in mind is how people think about cost varies from one company to the next. I have seen customer acquisition costs counted in different ways, and many companies do not incorporate the full cost. They report only a portion of it. So 50¢ a watt is our all-in customer acquisition cost when you count every dollar that goes to acquiring the customer.
MARTIN: Jason Cavaliere, I assume Sunrun’s is 49¢?
CAVALIERE: Fifty cents is a nice round number. That is our direct business. One of the benefits of the channel model is that we can take advantage of some of our channel partners that have local relationships. We have a management layer on top to run our business, but that management layer is maybe 10¢ to 12¢ cents a watt. Our channel partners have their own costs that we pay for, but their costs are usually lower than ours because they have local relationships.
MARTIN: Where are your current installation costs all-in? Are they $2.90 a watt, a little higher, a little lower?
CAVALIERE: We are a bit higher.
MARTIN: Chris Hale, what is your all-in installation cost?
HALE: We are charging the customer just under $4 a watt.
MARTIN: What is your customer acquisition cost as a fraction of that.
HALE: It is around 10%, including our marketing budgets and sales commissions.
I think I could have said more in response to your earlier question about whether we are strained for capital. I think the big question for all of us in this market is how does any residential solar business model become profitable?
MARTIN: Good question. What is the answer?
HALE: I like the way my company operates. We have low overhead. We have a very solid team. We have one crew, and we are looking to expand to two crews. Once we get to two or three crews, then the business will be nicely profitable.
Many people think the future lies with the major companies with national brands. But, you know what? How many major national companies are installing HVAC systems on homes? It is a local guy. I see a transition to more local companies over the next few years.
MARTIN: Interesting. We will come back to that. In terms of the ability to get the cost down, Albert Lu, you said the cost of an installed system needs to be at $2.50 a watt for residential to continue to thrive after the 2016. Is that to thrive in all states or just a small handful of states?
LU: In all states in which we are currently operating.
MARTIN: Which is 16 states?
LU: Nineteen plus Washington, DC.
MARTIN: Where are the most likely additional cost savings?
LU: Partly in the solar panels. We are going to be manufacturing our own high-efficiency modules. We expect this to reduce the cost of modules to around 55¢ a watt, compared to 70¢ a watt where modules are today with the import tariffs. You get 15¢ in savings there.
A lot of the additional cost savings is just integration. We have our own racking company. We have our own installation crews. We had a crew recently do three installs in a day where, two years ago, a typical install took two days. We are getting a lot of efficiency there. Then it is the non-hardware costs: lowering customer acquisition costs over time and getting some other soft-cost reductions.
MARTIN: Chris Hale posed the question, “How do we get this business model to be profitable?” I don’t think SolarCity or Sunrun has turned a profit yet. When will they move into the black?
LU: We have not turned a profit yet on a GAAP basis, but if you look at the equity value we have in our systems and discount that at 6%, we are creating a tremendous amount of value.
MARTIN: What about cash flow?
LU: We are cash positive if you look at cash flow on each system.
Barriers to Entry
MARTIN: Jason Cavaliere, how would you answer Chris Hale’s question?
CAVALIERE: Like he said, there are few, if any, large, national construction companies that have all their own employees in every state. They subcontract out the work. I think in the solar business, you either have to remain a small, local player or you have to work to become a national brand with a large footprint to benefit from economies of scale.
One of the things about residential solar that people do not realize is that there is a huge barrier to entry to become a national brand. You have to spend $200 to $400 million dollars on infrastructure to be able to maintain 100,000 or 300,000 customers, and that is just not an investment that the smaller guys can make.
That also means that we have more systems over which to amortize these costs, but because we made that investment, we can handle hundreds of thousands of customers. The marginal cost of additional customers is not very high. Costs come down. That money is amortized over a larger number, and you can become profitable.
MARTIN: So you disagree with Chris Hale. He thinks the business will shift over time to more localized, smaller companies. You think it will consolidate.
CAVALIERE: It will consolidate in a way that if he were to become a channel partner of Sunrun, he would take advantage of the infrastructure we have built.
MARTIN: His best move would be to become a feeder for Sunrun in the future?
CAVALIERE: Correct. He would still be doing installation. We could come up with the financing. He could use our systems. We have a very high bar to accepting channel partners, so I don’t want to say anything out of line, but I am just saying. [Laughter] In some jurisdictions, people want to see the local guy they know. His product might be co-branded with Sunrun. Places like Hawaii want to see a local person.
MARTIN: Chris Hale, that may be the answer to your capital needs. Do you disagree with Jason Cavaliere that you might do better as a channel partner of Sunrun?
HALE: That is a tough question. I threw out the gauntlet by saying the future is with local companies. I don’t see how the large companies can keep their investors happy by running $50 million a year in losses over the long haul.
MARTIN: What happens to your business model after the customers can no longer take a 30% residential tax credit?
HALE: We are trying to transition a little more into commercial work by hiring a commercial sales representative. We think that the commercial side will be a good hedge for the residential business. The awareness of solar has grown incredibly since we started the company, thanks in part to Sunrun and SolarCity. The unknowns have really fallen away. People are much more comfortable with the technology and the economics of it. I think people are buying for more reasons than just electricity savings.
MARTIN: So you are catering to the Prius owners for whom cost savings are not the top priority?
HALE: Prius owners, but I think at some point we will have the fantasy football guys, too. We will hit a tipping point when it will be just plain practical for everyone to install solar. That said, there may be some upheaval after 2016 if there is no tax credit.
MARTIN: Sylvain Mansier, make the case that the direct sale model will survive if the residential solar credit expires as scheduled after 2016.
MANSIER: I certainly think it survives. The question is how big the market will be and how quickly it will continue to grow. The market will not disappear. No one believes it will disappear just because the tax credit expires. Fifty cents a watt for customer acquisition can be brought down dramatically if you rely solely on referrals.
Let me add to a couple things to what others have said.
One of the early insights from the founders of SolarCity and Sunrun was we have an immature value chain in residential solar. They are chasing cost savings through vertical integration. The value chain has matured dramatically over the last 10 years. For example, our company exists now. We are one link in the chain; we provide all the capital needed to finance installations for direct sellers. Another need within that market is working capital to support growth among the smaller players. We find opportunities to supply that all the time.
My other point is that, yes, there are barriers to entry to become a national brand, but barriers can disappear or become less daunting as the value chain matures. For example, we are starting to see things like specialized small business software packages that help small installation companies run their businesses more efficiently and do a lot of the things for which the bigger folks have had to invest millions of dollars to be in a position to do. The analog is if you visit your doctor’s office or a restaurant or an auto dealership, there is specialty small business software that runs each of these types of businesses. That has not existed for residential solar. The big guys have basically built their own software and spent a lot of money doing it. The small guys may not need to do so to catch up.
MARTIN: You argue that there are actually low barriers to entry. Maturation of the value chain will ensure that remains so. Jason Cavaliere, does that lead to margin compression in the long term if the big guys cannot protect their market positions?
CAVALIERE: We are spending a lot of money to get to scale and build that infrastructure. We make money on every system we put in today. A large customer base helps us to amortize the fixed costs over a larger number of systems. I don’t see how smaller companies can compete with that over the long haul.
MARTIN: The stock analysts in the last couple of days have noted how rapidly Sunrun and SolarCity are hiring people. You have lots of ads out to hire. At the same time, they look at the long term and worry about margin compression. It is simple economics: in any business where there is large value being created, others rush in and the competition depresses margins. If there are low barriers to entry, the compression comes more quickly. Albert Lu, what is your response to the analysts?
LU: The barriers are low to be a small installer. Think of coffee shops as an analogy. It is not hard to open a single coffee shop. It is difficult to manage 10. Starbucks thrives in a market where the barriers to opening one, two or three coffee shops are low. Starbucks does not have many large competitors. A lot of them have gone away. The barriers are very high to be a national company. We have more than 14,000 employees.
MARTIN: In fact, SolarCity hired 500 in one day I read recently.
LU: Look at it this way. If some of our installation crews were standalone companies, they would be in the top five residential solar companies in terms of the number of installations they do.
MARTIN: I want to race through a series of remaining questions to get some useful data points. What is the average cost of capital today for a residential solar company using the third-party ownership model? Albert Lu, what is it for SolarCity?
LU: Our cost of capital is probably somewhere in the 6% to 7% range.
MARTIN: What percentage of the capital stack is true equity, what percentage is tax equity, and what percentage is debt?
LU: Roughly 40% of project value is being monetized through tax equity, and then we monetize a portion of the cash flow stream to cover that remaining delta. Tax equity is somewhere in the 9% after-tax range. On a pre-tax basis, the cost is really 3% to 4%. Debt raised through securitizations costs around 4.5%.
MARTIN: Tax equity is about 40% of the capital stack. Debt is how much?
LU: It is about 40% of the overall project value. Let’s say our costs are in the $2.90 to $3.00 range per watt. We raise $1.75 to $1.85 in tax equity and then you monetize enough cash to cover most of the delta, and then the difference is true equity that goes to the company to retain value.
MARTIN: The true equity is 10%? Higher? Lower?
LU: It is north of 10%.
MARTIN: Jason Cavaliere, do those sound like the right figures for Sunrun, as well: 40% tax equity, 40% to 50% debt, and the balance true equity?
CAVALIERE: Our financing arrangements are similar to SolarCity’s.
MARTIN: Sylvain Mansier, you simply borrow and relend, correct? That is your capital cost.
MANSIER: We have a few different structures, but this is another place where I think scale benefits some of the larger players. We started offering our first product in 2013. We are seven years behind these guys. We are starting aggregating customer paper to buy optionality.
MARTIN: To securitize the customer payment streams?
MANSIER: That remains to be determined. There is a lot of opportunity for yield compression. Our cost of funds today is not that dissimilar from SolarCity’s. We offer a plain vanilla product. The universe of potential investors in our kind of paper is probably much broader than for customer payment streams washed through more complicated tax equity vehicles.
MARTIN: Chris Hale, I assume all of your capital is equity, correct?
HALE: That is correct.
MARTIN: Albert Lu, people are trying to figure out how to combine PACE financing with the third-party ownership model. What is the benefit if one can figure out how to do it?
LU: People are trying. We will see where that goes. We are offering PACE for our small business customers who do not have rated debt. We have not seen too many models around residential PACE yet. There are some concerns around lien priority and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The benefit of PACE, if somebody can figure it out, is the customer payment stream becomes a tax assessment. There is a higher likelihood that customers will pay their tax assessments, especially if the obligation to pay is secured by a lien over the house. This makes it possible to borrow against the future payment stream more cheaply.
MANSIER: Here is a data point on PACE. The interest rate today is above 8% on a 20-year PACE deal. If the grand bargain that we are hearing about in Washington happens and you end up having effective subordinations through home sales, then I wonder what the interest rate will be. There may not be a lot of room to bring down the rate significantly.
We have always viewed PACE as an interesting idea, but our 20-year product already carries a lower interest rate. We wonder how PACE can work as long as there is uncertainty about the subordination issue.
MARTIN: My last question is about net metering. Jason Cavaliere, what do you expect to come out of the California proceeding and how important is net metering for the third-party ownership model?
CAVALIERE: Net metering is extremely important.
CAVALIERE: . . . and not just for third-party ownership, but also for any ownership, because it allows the customer effectively to use the grid for storage at retail rates during the sunniest part of the day. The push back we are getting in some states, like Hawaii in particular, will increase as solar penetration rates go higher, which will take some time, especially since they are so low currently.
Hawaii is an outlier, with at least 10% to 15% solar penetration. As solar penetration increases, regulators will be under more pressure to push back on net metering and what that will lead to is on-site storage, most likely with batteries. This is a short-term issue. It will eventually resolve itself as batteries become more widely available for on-site storage.
MARTIN: Let me go across the panel quickly in case there is anything any of you wants to add that we failed to mention. Sylvain Mansier?
MANSIER: There is a lot of uncertainty around the solar tax credits. That is the elephant in the room. Business models will have to change if the credits are not extended, and some people are already planning accordingly. Those people will do well. Moving beyond that, the upward trajectory for this business, beyond these blips, is clear. The market disruptions will be managed. Loss of the tax credits may cause short-term volatility, but the longer-term outlook is bright.
LU: Do not assume that the ITC will be extended. Plan your businesses around it not happening. There will be a big fallout in the industry. In some markets, like California, the solar rooftop companies employ more people than the investor-owned utilities. It will be a challenging environment in 2017 for any companies that cannot get their costs down in order to operate with a 10% ITC.
CAVALIERE: Same comment. Plan for the worst, hope for the best on the ITC. Another thing that may happen that will separate the big players from the little players is if Congress changes the 2016 deadline to complete projects to qualify for the 30% investment credit to a deadline merely to start construction, we will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment. I am sure SolarCity will, as well. The smaller companies probably do not have the capital to do that. This will enhance our ability to offer very competitive value propositions to customers with a continuing 30% tax credit.