Elon Musk’s vision for Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) was always to be an everything green energy company. Since the buyout of Musk’s other green pet project SolarCity, TSLA has moved ever closer to realizing the dream of being the world’s one-stop shop for renewable and green technology. Solar and the ability to store energy has become one of the primary focuses of Tesla and is right up there with its electric vehicle aspirations.
So when TSLA and Musk recently announced that SolarCity would soon be selling a significant advancement in the world of photovoltaics earlier than scheduled, investors should be cheering. But the reality is that there is something potentially more sinister going on in Tesla’s solar operations.
For investors buying into the Tesla miracle, this latest blow has some grave consequences and can’t be ignored.
A Mixture of Solar News at Tesla
One of the most highly anticipated pieces of TSLA’s SolarCity ambitions has been the concept of a full solar roof.
Since acquiring SolarCity, Tesla has been working on a way to make solar panels more accessible to retail consumers. Last year, it debuted its solar tile concept — which basically would replace a regular shingled roof with hundreds of glass tiles designed to soak up the sun’s rays and convert them into usable energy. The shingles have three layers — a high-efficiency solar cell, a masking film and a top layer of tempered glass.
After a few months of false starts, the concept is ready to go live, and TSLA announced that it is finally taking preorders for these solar tiles. That’s great news, and under Musk’s estimates, the solar roof tiles could send plenty of orders and revenues Tesla’s way over the next few years.
Naturally, investors rejoiced over the announcement and sent TSLA stock up over 1% on the news.
But perhaps investors in Tesla forget that the SEC just opened up an investigation into the company with regards to reporting solar cancellations less than a week ago.
The SEC wants to know whether or not, TSLA and a few other solar installers were sufficiently and accurately disclosing the number of customers who cancelled contracts for home solar systems after they signed up. A few solar companies do give hard numbers, but many — including SolarCity — have only reported that the number of cancellations have increased and not given specific numbers or many details.
After speaking to former insiders at SolarCity, the Wall Street Journal reported that just before the solar installer was sold to Tesla, the number of customers backing out of contracts before solar panels could be installed was about 50%.
Part of the reason could have been the sector’s aggressive sales tactics. Traditional, solar installers relied on door-to-door sales, cold calls and even trailed consumers as they shop in stores such as Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) or Home Depot Inc (NYSE:HD). The vast bulk of cancellations have come from these sources of sign-ups, and there have even been several lawsuits targeting solar installers over these tactics. Which also could help explain why TSLA has recently decided to end it door-to-door programs.
The SEC Investigation Could Be Bad for TSLA
The buyout of SolarCity by Tesla was considered to be bailout already. SolarCity had basically run into financing trouble getting panels on people’s roofs. The way the model worked is that much of the costs and capital needed was front-loaded by SCTY, and then the firm would reap cash flows from net-metering subsidies and monthly rental fees. To that end, Tesla bought out the company.
The problem is if so many customers were canceling and having trouble, would TSLA stock holders been OK with buying out SolarCity? Would they have been OK with taking on an additional $3 billion in debt when the buyout was completed? Probably not or at least not to the same degree.
I can already see the fines, penalties and shareholder class action lawsuits coming if the investigation doesn’t go TSLA’s way.
Even worse, the investigation comes at a time when solar installations have fallen like a rock. The second six months of 2016 was the first decline in the U.S. residential solar sector. This year, residential rooftop installations are only forecasted to increase by about 3%. Two years ago the increase was roughly 64%.
Already cash-strapped, TSLA doesn’t need any more fines and cash flow issues coming from angry shareholders or an SEC investigation. And it really needs the new tiles to be a hit. But the environment isn’t exactly the best.
The Sun Darkens for TSLA Stock
In the end, solar has become a major focus for Tesla — perhaps even more than its cars. The real question is whether Tesla should have gotten into the solar business in the first place. The SEC probe, dwindling demand and additional debt issues that it has brought certainly overshadows any good news from the operating segment.
For investors, it’s time to read carefully when looking at solar within the electric vehicle producer.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.