‘Stormy Days’ Ahead for Rooftop Solar in Arizona?

Stormy Solar Panels

Arizona consumers of rooftop solar best prepare for cloudy financial times ahead if recent stormy news in the solar panel industry is any indication.

Missouri-based SunEdison is on the verge of financial collapse as it heads toward bankruptcy with $11 Billion of debt, a lawsuit by a subsidiary and an investigation by the fed.

SunRun and SolarCity are also sitting on the same bubble as they find their values halved since late last year and nervous investors losing confidence in the industry’s 20-year leasing approach for consumers.

Also adding to the volatility of the industry is a realization by local and state governments that subsidizing the industry is simply unsustainable bad public policy.

The rooftop solar industry should blame itself for its financial woes. It took on far too much rapid expansion and despite tremendous revenues, it is still facing losses. SunCity lost $769 million while Sunrun reported $28.2 million in losses. And 2016 is certain to continue that trend.

Now the industry is making efforts to cut costs in overhead, labor, advertising, etc. even as the cost of panels had dropped considerably. To come close to making a profit, these companies must continue to lock in new customers. And they must also continue to find favor with state and local governments by continuing subsidies, favorable rate policies and special construction/installation projects.

As traditional utility companies follow a more steady and stable growth model into renewable energy platforms, government regulators are becoming more wise and reluctant to choose winners and losers through policies like net metering. Instead, regulators are attempting to allow the market to adjust to normal conditions with the least negative impact to consumer pocketbooks.

With these policy changes and market adjustments, rooftop solar companies are finding that a good deal [for them] won’t last forever. Even as energy regulators make adjustments to allow the market to benefit all consumers, the rooftop solar industry has turned it into a political battle to keep their special arrangements in place.

This is the vicious cycle for rooftop solar: Cut costs while expanding the number of consumers in order to come close in making a profit – a strategy that is highly dependent on government favors and taxpayers and essentially a form of corporate welfare. As the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money [to spend].”

This brings us back to Arizona consumers of solar energy who will be the negatively affected if the rooftop solar bubble bursts. Who will maintain and warranty rooftop units if the company reneges on its contracts or worse, goes under?

That’s where the market appears to be headed and consumers better prepare for a rainy day.

APS’ First Solar, Erecting a Barrier to Solar Energy Choice in Arizona

APS knows that Arizonans love solar, but it doesn’t want its customers to have the choice to produce their own electricity and lower their electricity bills.

That’s why APS has chosen First Solar – the one solar company that could never give consumers choice — as its wolf in sheep’s clothing, deploying the company to make APS’s monopoly arguments for them.

Let’s take a look at where First Solar is coming from when it attacks rooftop solar. Unlike rooftop solar companies, which provide solar electricity to individual homeowners, First Solar does utility-scale projects for utilities like APS, whose former CEO William J. Post sits on First Solar’s board of directors.

In its 2012 Annual Report, First Solar lays out in black and white that the success of rooftop solar could compromise First Solar’s ability to execute on their own long term strategic plans:

“We face numerous difficulties…including the following…Difficulty in competing against competitors who may gain in profitability and financial strength over time by successfully participating in the global rooftop PV solar market…”(p. 19). 

And that rooftop PV solar market is driven by consumer demand. The more homeowners are empowered to go solar, the stiffer the competition First Solar and APS face.

First Solar may face another difficulty: it has set aside a whopping $271.2 million to cover the costs of replacing defective modules it made in 2008 and 2009, according to public filings. But APS doesn’t need to be concerned about First Solar’s technology failing because the utility can just pass that cost on to the ratepayers as well. In fact, the more money ratepayers spend to build and fix APS infrastructure, the more money APS makes since it earns a guaranteed rate of return on all its expenditures—whether they promote what consumers want, or not. It’s good to be a monopoly.

It’s no surprise that First Solar CEO Jim Hughes, a 10-year veteran of Enron who led the infamous company’s global assets division during the height of the its accounting scandal but who reportedly escaped as an “unindicted co-conspirator”, opines that net energy metering, the policy that gives customers fair credit for the solar electricity they provide to the grid, and ultimately, to their nearest neighbors, is unfair.

Neither APS nor First Solar want Arizonans to be able to build their own solar projects, because if customers don’t have any choice among competitive solar companies, it makes it easier for utilities to build solar farms and pass on the entire expense to ratepayers. It’s not difficult to imagine APS putting heavy pressure on First Solar to step up to the mic. But that’s just another reason not to believe either of them.