Behind the Curtain: SolarCity May Not Be the Rockstar It Claims to Be

Image source: SolarCity.

One of the hardest things to reconcile with residential solar leader SolarCity is how a company with little revenue and losses quarter after quarter can be generating value for shareholders. What the company has tried to do is sell investors on a concept called retained value, which measures the value of solar systems they install over as long as 30 years.

Retained value has become a common metric in the solar industry, but it hides some important costs that go along with building solar systems. Below, I'll try to uncover what value SolarCity is really building in its business and if it's really as much as investors think.

What is retained value? Before we dig into the numbers, let's take a step back and define what we're talking about. Retained value is a concept invented by SolarCity to put its value creation into one easy number to digest. It takes all estimated future cash flows and discounts them at 6% to today's dollars, giving investors an approximation of how much value the company is adding in the thousands of leases it signs each quarter.

Let's start with retained value under contract, because this is really the only part of the calculation with any reasonable probability of being accurate. The definitions on retained value below can be found in the company's latest earnings presentation. SolarCity puts retained value under contract this way:

I've put this explanation in a diagram below to try and explain it more clearly. After a contract is signed, SolarCity can assume certain cash inflows and outflows based on the contract and past experience with insurance, maintenance, and other costs. But it's key to understand that costs incurred before the contract is signed aren't included in retained value. These are sales, marketing, administration, and other costs that are paid for upfront to acquire the contract.

Image created by the author.

The renewal value assumes that customers will renew leases for 10 years at a 90% rate after the initial 20-year contract expires. Here's how SolarCity explains it:

We'll get into why I question the renewal figure below, but that's the justification. It's these two value numbers that SolarCity adds together to get retained value, which is reported each quarter.

What SolarCity says it's worth In the past year, SolarCity has added $1.4 billion in retained value. Below are the retained value balances at the end of 2013 and 2014 and the calculation of the value added during the year last year. These are a snapshot of the value remaining as of each date, so subtracting the value at the end of 2014 from the value at the end of 2013 gives us the value added in 2014.

Source: SolarCity. Calculations by the author.

What's missing from retained value What this calculation doesn't include is the costs that go into generating those sales and operating the business on a day-to-day basis or the debt used to finance projects. In the image above, those operating costs are along the blue part of the timeline.

In 2014, SolarCity spent $414.2 million on operating expenses, including $238.6 million on sales and marketing. These are costs that should be pulled out of retained value above because they take place before the contract is signed but are integral to the overall business. But they're not the only costs.

SolarCity also uses debt to fund some of its projects and working capital. In 2014, it added $806.8 million in net debt as a result of these costs. This should also be pulled out of retained value, which management stated directly in the announcement that they would be reporting "levered retained value," or retained value minus the cost of debt, in the future. In the fourth-quarter earnings release management made clear that debt pulls value directly from equity shareholder's portion of retained value saying:

The real value of SolarCity Since I don't think there's any way we can reasonably assume a customer will renew their lease in 20 years for 90% of their rate in year 20, I give no value to the renewal portion of retained value. But the calculations are laid out so that you can add them back in if you disagree.

I think SolarCity's value creation in 2014 should be calculated as the retained value of energy contracts signed minus operating costs minus net debt.

In reality, I think SolarCity lost nearly $200 million in total value last year. Even using the quote above of $600 million in equity shareholder value (which includes renewal) if we subtract operating costs to obtain that value we get total value of around $200 million. That's not a lot for a company that's worth $5.1 billion. And remember that there are some rosy assumptions built into the retained value number SolarCity gives investors.

More problems with retained value While retained value may now be an industry standard for measuringvalue -- it certainly has its shortcomings. Most come down to very rosy assumptions the industry is making about the future of solar leases based on very limited data. Here are the three biggest risks that could blow up retained value.

  • Will homebuyers be willing to take on legacy leases for aging solar panels? For example, would a homebuyer want to buy a home with 10 years left on a lease for 10 year old solar panels?
  • There's little data on leases older than 5 years, so we don't know if default rates will be significant. Retained value assumes they won't be, but this isn't a mortgage on a home that can be repossessed and if a customer is unhappy with their system they can stop paying for it. If they do, SolarCity would have little recourse but to ruin someone's credit and take the system down. Even that would be a costly process.

As I've shown above, these risks are on top of the fact that total value added to shareholders is far lower than the $1.4 billion retained value number the company advertises.

Look before you leapOn the surface, growth in retained value may give investors the idea that shareholder value is being created, however, a deeper dive could suggest that there are certain costs SolarCity isn't accounting for like operating costs that go into acquiring customers and debt that pays for building the system itself.

Despite acquiringhundreds of thousands of customers over the past five years, I would argue that SolarCity has created little to no long-term value for shareholders when all appropriate costs are included. But it'll take many years for that thesis, or even a bullish thesis, to be proven correct.

At the very least, I'd be cautious assuming value is as thecompany advertises. There's more to the story than the company would like to admit.

The article Behind the Curtain: SolarCity May Not Be the Rockstar It Claims to Be originally appeared on

Travis Hoium has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends SolarCity. The Motley Fool owns shares of SolarCity. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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