The secret sauce for bringing residential solar into the mainstream is the solar lease. With the simple value proposition of little or no money down and cost savings from day one, a homeowner does not have to be an environmentalist or green to be interested in the green of a solar lease. He or she simply needs to live in a state where the combination of annual sunshine and state incentives provide the economics to make solar leases profitable for the lender and installer.
Low interest rates and the rapidly falling price of solar panels have rapidly expanded the number of states where solar leases are available in recent years, so much so that residential solar lease pioneer SolarCity (NASD:SCTY) grabbed 26 percent of the rapidly growing residential market in 2013. Of the top five residential solar installers on GTM Research’s 2013 U.S. PV Leaderboard, four offer solar leases. Commercial solar leases were pioneered by SunEdison (NASD:SUNE) a decade ago, but they only began to transform the solar market place when SolarCity and competitors like SunRun and Vivint Solar began offering them to homeowners.
While the opportunity to take advantage of attractive solar economics is expanding rapidly to more states, not every home owner has a suitable unshaded roof. Those who want to democratize the solar opportunity usually favor community solar farms, also known as solar gardens. These structures allow community members to each buy a share of a larger central solar installation, receiving credits on their electric bill, as well as a proportional share of the tax benefits. Unfortunately, creating solar gardens requires specific state legislation or action by the local utility or utility regulatory commission, and the difficultly of making such rule changes means that solar gardens are available in far fewer locations and to fewer individuals than solar leases.
Solar Mosaic is also working to democratize solar investment through crowdfunding. The company avoids the complexity of direct investment in solar farms by making loans to solar developers backed by a solar farm’s cash flow. It then offers pieces of loans to small investors though its crowd funding portal, taking a small cut of the interest to pay for its operations. While individuals can investment as little as $25, securities laws currently limit this opportunity to accreditied (i.e. wealthy) investors and residents of California and New York.
In practice, an even greater limitation has been the lack of available projects, with only $5.6 million invested in 34 MW of projects since the first investment in late 2012. That is approximately as much solar as 5,683 typical 6-kW residential solar systems.
Fortunately, the size and number of Solar Mosaic’s loans has been increasing. One particularly intriguing forthcoming project is the Mosaic Home Solar Loan in partnership with national installer RGS Energy (NASD:RSGE). I expect this product will appeal to Solar Mosaic’s investors, since it will finance residential systems. Financing solar for a homeowner will likely have more emotional appeal than financing a commercial installation on a convention center or school.
Another crowdfunding site, SunFunder, enables individuals to invest in solar projects bringing power to the developing world. It offers interest-paying investments to accredited investors. Ordinary investors can participate with loans that earn repayment of principal as well as interest credits in the form of “Impact points.” Impact points cannot be withdrawn, but they can be re-invested in other projects.
It seems likely that it will be some time before Mosaic can get enough solar loans (residential or otherwise) into its system to satisfy investor demand. Until that happens, and until Mosaic is able to offer investments to ordinary investors nationwide, many will have to look elsewhere to invest in solar installations.
One promising option on the horizon is bonds backed by solar leases. SolarCity was the first to issue such bonds, with a $54.4 million offering in November of last year. That offering was 71 percent backed by residential solar leases, with the balance backed by commercial solar. They followed this with a 87 percent residential $70 million offering which closed on April 10th. Like most green bond issues in recent months, SolarCity’s bonds were only available to institutional investors. SolarCity has little incentive to offer these bonds to small investors, because demand from institutional investors greatly exceeded supply.