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SolarCity's Good News Trifecta: Cash, Closure, And Growth

It's been a good couple of weeks for the benchmark third-party solar installer, from financing to expansion, and it's quieted a pesky argument too.

It's Raising the Bar for Solar Financing. This month SolarCity proposed and completed the first securitization of distributed solar energy, issuing $54 million in solar asset-backed notes, yielding 4.80 percent and maturing in December 2026. The notes are backed by a pool of PV systems, leases, and power purchase agreements -- technically owned by SolarCity LMC Series I, not insured or guaranteed by SolarCity itself. SolarCity says it wants to do them maybe as frequently as every quarter, and says the next one might be a $200 million deal.

"We're seeing financing moving to capital markets as standardization of distributed generation is approved," explained Trevor J D'Olier-Lees, analyst with Standard & Poors, who helped craft the group's BBB+ rating for SolarCity's offering. S&P liked the deal's "relatively low leverage" of 62 percent outstanding notes vs. discounted solar assets, their relatively young age (around two years), reserves for interest and inverter replacements, and performance tests. S&P credit analyst Xilun Chen noted that SolarCity's securitization pool has good FICO scores on the residential side, and strong mostly investment-grade ratings for the nonresidential parts. Liquidity and scale of distributed generation asset are what make this securitization asset class especially attractive, added D'Olier-Lees. In its analysis, S&P also offered some more insights about SolarCity's customer base, such as: only 2.4 percent of the company's 39,000 financed systems have completed "contract reassignments" and "only a handful" were ultimately removed, meaning SolarCity rarely has been left on the hook for any defaults.

Deutsche Bank's Vishal Shah pointed out the offering was more attractive than current tax equity financing with a far lower interest rate, and he expects other companies to follow suit, including private leasing companies and SunPower. "Tax equity financing has been the primary constraint for companies involved in the residential solar market and this transaction should act as a great source of incremental capital," he wrote in a research note.

It's Settling Debates. Ten days ago U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in which he re-raised some questions about the 1603 stimulus program and specifically how SolarCity has been calculating "fair market value" to get reimbursed under the 30 percent tax credit. Barrons had picked up on the issue back in August and again earlier this month, and it's been called to our attention in the past.

Last week, though, SolarCity cleared the air with a point-by-point deconstruction of those concerns and criticisms, which it says it couldn't do before because of SEC quiet-period restrictions. The company emphasized misinterpretation and miscalculation of "fair market value" and system prices. "The inaccuracies are understandable, given the complexity of the issues, and the fact that we had not addressed them," the company acknowledges, "but felt we owe it to our customers, partners, employees, and shareholders to set the record straight."

It's branching out. SolarCity also just announced it is extending its reach in the biggest U.S. solar state, adding 10 new operation centers across California and 260 workers -- it now will have 24 offices statewide, collectively putting it within 30 miles of 90 percent of the state's population, i.e. potential customers). Tanguy Serra, EVP of operations, points out the expansion both reduces costs thanks to less drive time and faster installations, even as state incentives wind down. Here's a map of the company's California profile.

Lead image: Target aim glossy red and blue mark with darts in the center, via Shutterstock

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