“Solar and batteries go together like peanut butter and jelly,” said entrepreneur, Elon Musk, in a company call last week. The comment came after one of Musk’s companies, energy service provider SolarCity, accepted $2.6bn in stock for one of Musk’s other companies, electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer Tesla Motors.
Musk owns around a 20% stake in each company, but dismissed accusations of corporate over-reach and a conflict of interest – choosing instead to focus on his vision of buildings everywhere fitted with solar panels and energy storage, which can power the building as well as charging an EV.
Musk is placing himself at the center of our post-carbon solar-powered future. ‘Tesla Motors’ was recently renamed ‘Tesla’ suggesting the focus was no longer just vehicles, giving extra weight to the ‘Powerwall,’ a stationary battery system the company began producing last year. After the SolarCity announcement, Musk said he is building the world’s “first vertically integrated sustainable energy conglomerate.”
Wall Street analysts, who have habitually supported Musk’s ventures, greeted the news with skepticism; concerned it might distract each company at critical moments. Tesla is attempting to overcome a flurry of production problems during the current production ramp up, meanwhile SolarCity has played down its growth forecasts for the third time in seven months, following a steep decline in new orders.
Musk’s reaction to the skepticism was to describe critics as “silly buggers”. Suggesting that “keeping the two companies separate as they tried to integrate their solar power and electric storage products would create more conflicts of interest than merging them.”
So what should we make of the deal and its implications for the wider solar plus energy storage sector? Firstly, we should probably address Musk’s “world first”, considering there are already numerous solar plus energy storage companies out there. Furthermore, strategic alliances have brought together many more solar panel and battery companies in order to provide a similar offering, such as Tesla and SolarCity to date. However, we can probably accept the if Musk is involved, then the “vertically integrated sustainable energy conglomerate” will do things differently - even if that’s only slick design and sexy marketing.
By merging the two previously allied firms, Musk expects to “be able to expand [each company’s] addressable market further than either company could do separately.” He suggested that because of the “shared ideals of the companies and [their] customers,” each entity would be able to increase the sales of the other. “Those who are interested in buying Tesla vehicles or Powerwalls are naturally interested in going solar, and the reverse is true as well,” an official statement said.
Considerable traffic at Tesla showrooms might also be used to promote SolarCity products and services. While access to SolarCity’s substantial sales network and distribution channels can only be good news for Tesla. The EV manufacturer’s design, engineering, and manufacturing skills could also give a boost to SolarCity’s panel technology.
In 2014, SolarCity bought solar panel maker Silevo, and next year the firm plans to open a $750 million manufacturing facility in Buffalo, NY, with enough high-efficiency solar panel production to provide 1 gigawatt of power per year. Then, during the company's second-quarter earnings call last week, SolarCity alluded to a new product it expects to begin producing next year, a solar roof.
"If your roof is nearing end of life, you definitely don't want to put solar panels on it because you're going to have to replace the roof," Musk said. "So, why not have a solar roof that's better in many other ways as well," he continued. "We don't want to turn over all our cards right now, but I think people are going to be really excited about what they'll see."
Tesla’s proven ability for raising large amounts of capital could also be very advantageous for SolarCity as the company moves from installing and financing solar panels to becoming a large-scale manufacturer. Remember that just last month, Tesla announced the initial opening of its 130-acre Gigafactory outside of Reno, Nevada, that will produce tens of thousands of lithium-ion batteries per year.
A majority of each Tesla’s and SolarCity’s shareholders must still approve the deal, which the companies expect to close in the fourth quarter. SolarCity said an independent committee of its board had approved the deal and would have a 45-day “go shop” period to consider other offers. Neither side has set a date for shareholder votes, however Musk has agreed not to vote his shares.
“In light of Elon Musk’s SEC disclosure obligations in his individual capacity as a stockholder of SolarCity this proposal will be publicly disclosed, but Tesla’s intention is to proceed only on a friendly basis,” the official offer reads.
Then, just this week, in an 8-K filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission, SolarCity announced a $3-5 million restructuring “to realign the Company’s operating expenses to match the Company’s reduced guidance for megawatts installed.” The same filing also stated that co-founders Lyndon Rive, CEO, and Peter Rive, CTO, requested that the company reduce their annual salary from $275,000 to $1 per year. At Tesla, CEO Elon Musk also only accepts a salary of $1 per year; all three executives have generous stock compensation plans in place.
So these sister companies, moving from a close strategic alliance to a “vertically integrated sustainable energy conglomerate” may not be the revolutionary news it’s made out to be, but then again, with Musk involved, we can’t rule it out.