Google Goes Green

Google and SolarCity,  a rooftop solar-panel company announced a $280 million investment deal,  the largest such deal for home-based solar power systems in the United States.  The investment gives San Mateo, CA-based SolarCity the funding to build and lease solar power systems to as many as 7,000 to 9,000 homeowners in the 10 states in which it operates.

Established in 2006, SolarCity currently has 15,000 solar projects around the nation completed or under way.  Customers who want to have the firm’s solar system installed at their homes can pay for it up front; however, the majority let SolarCity retain ownership of the equipment and rent back the use of it through monthly solar lease payments.  By financing SolarCity, Google will recoup its investment through those lease payments.  “We hope to be seen as a model,”said Rick Needham, Google’s director of green business operations.  Needham didn’t discuss the deal’s terms, but said “these investments are designed to earn us a good return on our capital.”

“It allows us to put our capital to work in a way that is very important to the founders and to Google, and we found a good business model to support,” said Google’s Joel Conkling.  Google CEO Larry Page wants the firm’s operations to eventually produce no-net greenhouse gas emissions.  To achieve this, Google has invested in wind farms in North Dakota, California and Oregon, solar projects in California and Germany, and the beginning stages of a transmission system off the East coast to encourage the construction of offshore wind farms.  The SolarCity deal is Google’s seventh green energy investment, totaling more than $680 million.

Typically, a rooftop solar system costs $25,000 to $30,000, which is beyond the means of many homeowners.  Instead, solar providers like SolarCity, SunRun and Sungevity pay for the system with money borrowed from a bank or a specially-designed fund similar to the one that Google has created.  The resident then pays a set rate for the power generated which is lower than or approximately the same as local electricity.  Typically, s 5-kilowatt system will generate 7,000 kilowatt-hours of power annually, or about 60 percent of the household’s annual use.  The homeowner buys remaining electric power from the local utility, typically enjoys lower overall power bills and has some protection against potentially higher traditional electricity prices.  Electricity prices have not risen in recent months, but are expected to rise in coming years as the cost of increasingly stringent clean-air regulations are passed on to customers.  If the solar company is to make money and the homeowner save money, there must be a combination of high local electric rates, state and local subsidies, as well as low installation costs.  Then there is the matter of sunshine.  A house with solar panels should have a roof that faces South that is not shaded by trees or other buildings.

“You have full flexibility in what you want to pay on a monthly basis,” said SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive, who pointed out that homeowners are charged only for the electricity the company’s solar panels generate at or below market rates.  If the panels produce more power than the home uses, the consumer gets a credit.  “It’s actually a win-win,” Rive said.  “This industry is going gangbusters despite the economy,” said Danny Kennedy, founder of Oakland-based Sungevity.  According to Kennedy, the lease option his company started offering in March 2010 has pushed sales “through the roof.”  He expects to complete 30,000 leases in 2011, up from 10,000 in 2010.

California and Colorado accounted for more than a third of the residential solar market leases in the 1st quarter of 2011, according to a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).  The growth reflects that of the overall solar panel market, which expanded at an average annual rate of 69 percent since 2000, including 100 percent in 2010, according to SEIA, which expects the market to double this year.

Google has chosen to invest in clean energy projects because of the potential returns and the potential to impact the industry.   “We hope that Google’s leadership in the space will encourage other corporate investors,” Rive said.  There definitely is room for other investors to get involved: Fewer than 0.1 percent of American homes currently have rooftop solar panels, but that number is expected to grow to 2.4 percent by 2020, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. It’s highly likely that Google-financed companies like SolarCity will have a role in that growth.

The SolarCity project is not Google’s first venture into the clean energy market.  The firm has invested $168 million in California’s Ivanpah solar farm and another $100 million in the world’s biggest wind farm.  That is the $2 billion Shepherds Flat project,  near Arlington, OR, that will stretch over 77 square kilometers of north-central Oregon and generate enough energy for 235,000 homes.  The project, which will go into operation in 2012, is being developed by Caithness Energy.