When it comes to timing, Warren Buffett may be somewhat early. But, of course, his bets usually payoff eventually.
So, what’s the Oracle of Omaha looking at now? One big play is solar.
True, the industry has been a pariah. After all, governments in the U.S. and Europe are struggling to find ways to cut their budgets. And alternative energy subsidies are an easy target.
But such things seem to be no problem for Buffett. Consider that one of Berkshire Hathaway’s (NYSE:BRK.A, BRK.B) portfolio companies, MidAmerican Energy Holdings, agreed yesterday to purchase two mega-projects of SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) for more than $2 billion. They’re based near Los Angeles and are expected to become the world’s largest photovoltaic sources, with 579 megawatts of power.
But the development won’t be quick. Construction will begin this year and take until 2016 to complete.
Then again, Buffett is a long-term thinker and certainly understands that finding cheap sources of energy will be crucial for MidAmerican. Besides, he realizes that more regulations on carbon emissions will mean strong demand for clean energy sources — for decades to come.
And it’s hardly MidAmerican’s first alternative energy deal. Just a few month ago it bought two California wind farms and the 300-megawatt Topaz solar project, also in California.
On news of the deal, SunPower’s shares spiked, up about 32% in today’s trading to $8.12. But there may be even more gains. An analyst at Lazard (NYSE:LAZ) has upped his rating on the stock from neutral to a buy, and his price target is now $11. A big key is that earnings momentum should be strong. Keep in mind that MidAmerican has entered contracts for ongoing payments to SunPower, which may amount to $2.5 billion.
When it comes to investing in other players in the solar industry, investors certainly have opportunities. However, you should still be cautious. Let’s face it, the industry remains heavily reliant on subsidies, and there are fierce competitors, such as from China. Oh, and operators like LDK Solar (NYSE:LDK) and Suntech (NYSE:STP) have substantial debt loads.
So, trying to find the next SunPower could be dicey. Rather, another approach is to look at companies that could benefit from the solar trend. And one that looks interesting actually came public recently: SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY).
The company is the No.1 solar installer in the U.S., with over 31,600 customers. They include homeowners as well as mega-organizations like the U.S. government, Walmart (NYSE:WMT) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC).
SolarCity has an innovative business model: Customers pays no upfront costs. Instead, they agree to a 20-year contract that involves monthly lease payments.
So far, the strategy has worked quite well. For the first half of 2012, revenues surged from $20.3 million to $71.4 million.
Of course, there are still risks. For example, SolarCity relies on government credits. It’s also facing an IRS audit of two of the company’s investment funds.
But such things seem manageable. What’s more, SolarCity is backed by one of the world’s top entrepreneurs, Elon Musk, co-founder of breakout companies like Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), SpaceX and eBay’s (NASDAQ:EBAY) PayPal. Yes, he’s someone who has a knack for making the next-big-thing a real business.
Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPO Playbook, a site dedicated to the hottest news and rumors about initial public offerings. He is also the author of “How to Create the Next Facebook” and “High-Profit IPO Strategies: Finding Breakout IPOs for Investors and Traders.” Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.