SolarCity bets $1B on commercial, rides storage wave to market approval

SolarCity energy storage commercial solar
SolarCity
Wall Street approves of SolarCity's latest gambit for the commercial solar market, which emphasizes energy storage capacity.

Sure, the numbers bear out a huge drop in solar energy costs in recent years. But if there was any question that people other than environmentalists are beginning to view renewables as the likely energy standard of the future, action in the stock market this week should answer that.

After announcing a new $1 billion fund to finance solar installations by commercial customers, SolarCity saw its stock price jump 4 percent in trading Wednesday to $60.50 a share before closing at $59.09 a share, up 2.43 percent.  

Buoying the market bump, no doubt, was that Credit Suisse Group AG invested $500 million in the fund.

SolarCity won't be peddling solar energy systems alone. It wants to use the $1 billion to install and lease solar power systems along with battery storage to commercial businesses. Better solar energy storage long has been pegged as an area of growth for the company, given founder Elon Musk's battery Gigafactory project tied to his other clean tech company, Tesla Motors.

When it comes to financials, SolarCity's executive team wagers that the combination of existing panels and new storage technologies will produce lower electricity prices — at least during peak demand hours — than power from conventional utilities.

“We’re seeing continued adoption of solar in the commercial sector," said Erik Fogelberg, SolarCity’s senior vice president of commercial sales and storage solutions, in an interview with GreenBiz. "That is why we are putting out our largest fund yet.”

He said the $1 billion fund “will be able to put up 300 megawatts in new commercial deals in the next two years.”

Scaling solar sales

The commercial deals SolarCity intends to finance with the fund, Fogelberg said, combine solar photovoltaic systems with its DemandLogic intelligent battery storage system. Tesla provides the battery storage product being packaged with SolarCity’s installed solar energy systems.

The company touts the offering as a way for businesses or commercial customers to cut energy costs by using stored electricity when the sun is not shining. That lets them avoid peak demand and associated utility demand charges.

“Solar is becoming part of their overall strategy in energy procurement," Fogelberg said of commercial customers. "It wraps into goals of using clean power, but first and foremost it’s about how do I save money.”

Commercial customers could include Fortune 500 companies — who may be interested in rounding out their energy procurement not to be as dependent on fossil fuels or regional electric grids — but also school districts, cities, counties, water districts, colleges and government agencies.

Investor Place quoted Deutsche Bank analyst Rod Lache estimating that dual solar and storage systems in fact could produce cost savings in electricity purchases. 

Lache estimated that solar-plus-storage systems of the type SolarCity and Tesla are packaging could bring the price of electricity to 39 cents per kilowatt hour, which compares favorably against peak demand electricity prices of 49 cents per kilowatt hour in some U.S. markets today.

It just so happens that shares of Tesla, as a pioneer in scaling battery storage for commercial use, also soared Wednesday — up $10, or 4.79 percent, to close at $219.44 a share.

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