A Solar Power Success Story
The first time I went to see solarcity, I wasn't really going to see SolarCity. It was February 2008, a moment when solar seemed poised to go supernova. I was in the San Francisco Bay Area to visit Nanosolar, a startup that was going to revolutionize the industry with its cheap manufacturing process for solar panels. I stopped by the SolarCity headquarters, then in Foster City outside San Francisco, mostly because the company--which is in the decidedly less glamorous business of actually selling and installing panels--had a connection to Elon Musk, founder of electric-car maker Tesla Motors. (Musk is a cousin of SolarCity CEO and co-founder Lyndon Rive and serves as the company's chairman.) I listened to Rive's energetic spiel and toured a warehouse where workers loaded panels onto delivery trucks. And then I continued on to the company I thought would be the actual future of solar.
By the time I visited SolarCity again, in late October this year, a few things had changed. Thanks to a supply glut, the solar-manufacturing industry had crashed, leaving dead startups in its wake--including Nanosolar, which went bankrupt and was sold for scrap in July. (Solar also became politically charged when government-backed Solyndra went under two years ago.) But while the plummeting price of solar modules killed manufacturers, it proved a boon to installers, who could offer solar power at an increasingly affordable cost to homeowners and businesses. No company benefited more than SolarCity, which has emerged as the U.S.'s leading solar provider.
Since its founding in 2006, SolarCity has installed 464 megawatts of solar power--the equivalent of about half the output of a typical nuclear plant. It has roughly doubled in size each year, and its market value has multiplied fivefold since it went public at the end of 2012, making it the top clean-tech stock not named Tesla. Rive is aiming for still more. He's set a goal of reaching 1 million customers by the middle of 2018, up from around 80,000 now. "A million customers would make us a real-size energy provider," says the 36-year-old Rive. "And that's going to make for an interesting dynamic with utilities. We're going to change the business model."
Solar power is still a minuscule part of the overall energy picture, accounting for less than 1% of U.S. electricity production. But it is growing rapidly--photovoltaic capacity rose 76% in 2012, and more than 40% of existing U.S. solar came online last year. Thanks to concerns over grid reliability--more than 8 million people lost power after Superstorm Sandy last year, some for weeks--and a 500% drop in the cost of solar panels since 2008, solar power looks like a surprisingly good deal.
If solar can keep up its heady rate of growth, transforming more and more customers from passive energy consumers into independent power producers, it could cut into utility profits and disrupt the staid electricity business. And that's exactly what SolarCity wants. "We're going to keep doing it through the country and the world," says Peter Rive, Lyndon's brother and COO, CTO and co-founder of SolarCity. "Why? Because it doesn't emit carbon dioxide, and it's freaking cheaper."
Even if Lyndon Rive weren't related to Musk--their mothers are twin sisters--entrepreneurship would have been in his blood. The South African native started his first business at 17, setting up a distribution network for a health-products company. With his proceeds, Rive moved to California, where he and Peter launched a business-software startup called Everdream in 1999. It had 280 employees at its height and was eventually sold to PC giant Dell in 2007 for $120 million.
Despite his business success, Rive was unable to get a green card while running Everdream and worried about deportation. His wife, also South African, eventually secured one thanks to her skill in underwater hockey. Both Rive and his wife, now American citizens, ended up playing for the U.S. national underwater-hockey team, Rive's sole passion outside his business. That impressed John Fisher, the managing director of venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and an early investor in Everdream and SolarCity. "He was wily, smart, highly energetic and very savvy," he says.
As Everdream wound down, Rive began looking to start a new business. It was Musk--in an RV on the way to the Burning Man festival in 2004--who nudged him toward solar power. SolarCity's innovation wasn't technological but financial. Instead of selling solar systems outright, which can cost $20,000 or more, SolarCity would install them for free and then sell the electricity the panels generated to customers at a fixed rate over the life of a 20-year contract.
Given that utility rates are expected to rise, customers taking advantage of so-called power-purchase-agreement contracts are able to avoid the prohibitive up-front cost of solar and save money over the life of their contract. SolarCity also offered solar leases, not unlike car leases, in which customers pay a fixed monthly price for their systems. "With a lease, you immediately start saving, and from Day One you pay less for electricity than you were before," says Shayle Kann, vice president for research at Greentech Media. The model--now used by most solar installers--opened a huge new market.
Of course, subsidies help. The federal government offers a 30% tax credit on solar systems, and states provide additional incentives. Some states also have net-metering laws, which require utilities to pay solar-system owners for any excess electricity they feed back into the grid. That's what has some utilities concerned about distributed solar. If solar can keep growing, a significant percentage of utility customers will begin producing more and more of their own energy--and paying less to utilities. Rhone Resch, the president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, argues that if utilities don't evolve, SolarCity will become a threat.
The utility industry says those fears are overblown. "You might not need a [telephone] landline, but you're always going to want to be connected to the grid," says David Owens, the executive vice president at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group. And solar has no shortage of obstacles along the way--including a ratcheting down of the federal tax credit, which is scheduled to fall to 10% in 2017. While the industry should continue to benefit from lower solar-panel prices, companies will also have to grapple with the more difficult task of reducing the cost of installation and other labor-intensive aspects of the business, a challenge that has proved far trickier.
SolarCity recently bought rooftop-solar-equipment provider Zep Solar, which has technology that can cut installation times from two or three days to as little as one day. The company is also trying to bulk up fast in an effort to get big enough to become essentially subsidy-proof. "The only way you can make that jump is to get massive scale," says Lyndon Rive. If SolarCity can keep growing and achieve its goal of becoming one of the largest energy companies in the country, Rive will have changed the electricity business forever. And Elon Musk might end up being known as Lyndon Rive's cousin.