The Success of the Solar PPA Business Model: Lessons for Other Industries

17th Aug 18

Written by James Doyle

To have a successful business model, three ingredients are very important: technological feasibility, market demand and financial viability. If one of them is missing, the business idea fails sooner or later. The solar PPA business model provides a great example of how to balance these three elements by connecting key players in the energy industry.

First of all, the product or service being considered for a business idea must be technologically viable. Think about teleportation: a science fiction concept that would have a huge market demand in the real world, but we don’t even know if it’s possible yet. Generating electricity from the sun was also impossible just a few centuries ago.

Once a concept becomes technologically viable, you need a market segment that has demand for it, and must develop a lucrative way to serve your potential customers. The first experimental solar panels date back to the 1800s, but they were very inefficient and commercial electricity hadn’t been developed yet – in other words, there was no market for these solar cells. Electricity had to become commercial first, and then solar panels had to become efficient and affordable enough to be considered a viable power source.

For a long time, a key barrier for deploying solar power systems was their high upfront cost. This resulted in a long payback period and a low return on investment, which few customers were willing to assume. However, manufacturing innovation and economies of scale gradually reduced the cost of photovoltaic systems, while the business model of the solar power purchase agreement (PPA) was developed in California.

Why the Solar PPA Business Model Was a Brilliant Idea

The solar PPA business model has been successful because it connects two key groups with photovoltaic system developers:

  • Electricity consumers who want to reduce their power bills, but are unwilling or unable to pay the upfront cost of a photovoltaic system.
  • Investors looking for innovative businesses with attractive returns.

Under a solar PPA, investment capital is used to supply a photovoltaic array for the client. In exchange for not paying the upfront cost of their solar systems, clients sign contracts where they agree to purchase electricity from the installation over a specified period. These electricity sales provide the constant stream of income that investors are looking for.

However, this concept only works if the deal is beneficial for both the end user and the investor. Solar PPA providers accomplish this in two main ways:

  • Electricity is sold directly from the solar array to the user, with no need for an electricity network and no power retailers acting as middlemen. As a result, a solar PPA offers a much lower kilowatt-hour price than conventional power retailers.
  • The solar system stays under the ownership of the provider, who assumes responsibility for maintenance and power supply reliability. Since the photovoltaic system is being serviced by qualified personnel, its long-term operation is guaranteed and it can be considered a safe investment.

The lower electricity price makes solar PPAs attractive for electricity consumers. On the other hand, investors can feel confident because the client signs a legal document, while the solar system provider takes responsibility for operation and maintenance.

When solar system components come from reliable manufacturers, warranties make the PPA business model even safer for all parties involved. Solar panels typically come with 10-year manufacturing warranties and 25-year energy production warranties, while inverters are normally rated for 10 years. This ensures the equipment supplier will take responsibility if any solar system component fails prematurely.

Client Benefits When Signing a Solar PPA

When electricity consumers deploy commercial solar systems by signing PPAs, it does not always mean they cannot afford the systems. In many cases, they are simply choosing the solar PPA option for the benefits it offers:

  • The solar power system remains under the ownership and oversight of experts. For a company in a non-technical business sector, outsourcing solar system maintenance is much easier than creating their own team.
  • The capital that would have been spent on the photovoltaic system stays available for other investments.

In other words, a solar PPA provides a low-risk method to deploy a photovoltaic system. No capital is committed upfront, and the installer is responsible for keeping the solar system under optimal conditions.

Solar PPAs can also be used as protection against future increases in electricity tariffs. Consider that the kilowatt-hour price in a PPA is established in a contract, while the electricity supply from conventional power retailers is subject to unpredictable price increases.

In addition to charging high kWh prices, Australian power retailers are notorious for their confusing electricity plans. These include many complex pricing schemes and conditions, and the kilowatt-hour price is not always clear. There are also misleading electricity tariffs that seem like a good deal, while you are actually paying more than necessary. For example, a 15% discount on an electricity plan that is overpriced by 30% is by no means a deal – it is actually a legal scam!

Concluding Remarks

When the solar PPA business model is deployed properly, it benefits all parties involved: clients, developers and investors. The client provides a revenue stream while saving on electricity, the solar developer provides the technical expertise, and the investor provides the capital required for operational PV systems.

Without solar PPAs, the market for photovoltaic systems would be reduced drastically.

  • PV arrays can only be sold to clients who are able and willing to pay upfront.
  • Solar system providers become simply retailers and installers.
  • Investors have a reduced business opportunity for the simple reason that the market is smaller. In addition, lending capital for solar PV system purchases is less lucrative than financing solar PPAs.

If you have doubts about the financial viability of photovoltaic systems, consider that Warren Buffett has invested aggressively in the solar industry. He is considered the world’s greatest investor and is characterised by focusing on businesses he knows well, while staying away from high-tech sectors. However, he made an exception for solar power and has developed some of the largest solar farms in the USA.

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