SunEdison's Filing Leaves the Renewable Energy Industry Unfazed

SunEdison Files for Bankruptcy After Buying Binge
  • Bankrupt company's buying spree wasn't replicated elsewhere
  • Ecotricity buys SunEdison's U.K. solar rooftop business

Renewable energy companies distanced themselves from the collapse of SunEdison Inc., saying the largest U.S. bankruptcy this year won’t harm the industry.

The world’s biggest developer of clean-energy projects sought protection from creditors after racking up $16.1 billion of liabilities following a $3.1 billion expansion spree that spooked investors and industry partners.

The bankruptcy says more about SunEdison’s “relentless pursuit of growth” than the solar industry as a whole, said Jenny Chase, chief solar analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. She noted that other large developers such as First Solar Inc. have been profitable in recent years. SunEdison’s restructuring may even benefit some other solar developers.

“The issue with SunEdison was they tried to grow too fast and took on too much debt,” Andrew de Pass, chief executive officer of Conergy, said in an interview. The developer is majority-owned by Kawa Capital Management Inc., a Miami-based asset management firm that acquired assets of an insolvent German solar company three years ago. Conergy completed almost 500 megawatts of solar plants last year generating revenue of more than $500 million and has “little” debt, he said.

The biggest impact from SunEdison’s bankruptcy could be the potential sales of project assets offered in what’s already become a buyer’s market. Conergy may bid on such assets with a partner, he said.

‘Supply Glut’

“There’s going to be a flood of projects available and a supply glut,” de Pass said. “Assuming we get a capital partner, hopefully it means we’ll be able to pick up some of them at good prices.”

Others companies are already snapping up SunEdison assets. An hour after the bankruptcy filing, the British green energy supplier Ecotricity Group Ltd. announced it had acquired SunEdison’s U.K. portfolio of 800 solar rooftop installations on April 8 for a “seven-figure sum.” More precise terms weren’t disclosed.

“This is our first step into the domestic solar market, and as the price of the technology continues to fall,” Dale Vince, Ecotricity’s founder, said in a statement. “We’re confident that it’s only a matter of time before we can resume the work SunEdison started and help more homes take advantage of solar power.”

Other Bankruptcies

Barely a decade old, the renewable energy industry has no real dominant companies, with a handful emerging then flaming out. Suntech Power Holdings Co. was the last major default in 2013, handing over leadership of solar manufacturing first to Yingli Green Energy Holdings Co. and then Trina Solar Ltd. Solyndra LLC’s bankruptcy in 2011 tilted political support away from subsidies for renewables. SunEdison owes Trina $10.5 million, according to filings in Manhattan federal court on Thursday.

The WilderHill New Energy Global Innovation Index of 98 clean-energy companies was little changed Thursday after climbing 19 percent since the middle of February. SunEdison shares are part of the index and were suspended from trading before the announcement, having lost almost all their value in the past year.

Record Investment

Even so, investment in the industry hit a record $329 billion last year, more than triple the investment of a decade ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Governments everywhere are stimulating renewables and ratcheting back support for fossil fuels after agreeing in Paris in December to limit the emissions causing global warming. That deal will be signed by more than 160 nations in New York on Friday.

“The future is brighter than ever,” said Alan Russo, senior vice president of sales at REC Solar, a commercial solar installer backed by the U.S. utility Duke Energy Corp.

GlassPoint Solar Inc., which is developing systems to stimulate production of the most viscous grades of oil, said the industry is increasingly rivaling traditional fuels on price.

“The travails of one company will not stop the rise of solar power,” said Rod MacGregor, co-founder of GlassPoint. “We stand at a watershed moment where solar technologies are both proven and economical in applications from rooftops to oilfields."

Acquisition Binge

SunEdison’s woes started with an acquisition binge where it bought up wind and solar projects on every continent except Antarctica. At first, the market responded positively driving the shares to a peak of $32. Doubts started to creep in in July when it announced plans to buy Vivint Solar Inc. at a 52 percent premium.

After delays and renegotiation, Vivint scrapped the deal in March and is now suing SunEdison. The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also started inquiries into SunEdison.

The bankruptcy of this “former solar star” shouldn’t give the impression that the solar industry “can be lumped in with the incumbent energy industries,” said Jeremy Leggett, founder of Solar Century Holdings and author of four of books on climate change and energy.

Commodity Defaults

SunEdision joins a crowded list of energy and commodities companies to file for bankruptcy this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and comes after Peabody Energy Corp., the world’s biggest independent coal company, announced bankruptcy on April 13.

“The mass bankruptcies among coal companies and oil and gas drillers in shale are to do with broken business models in markets with broken prospects,” said Leggett in an e-mail. “SunEdison managed to fashion a broken business model in a market with huge growth prospects.”

Large-scale photovoltaic solar farms, SunEdison’s core focus, will grow from about 100 gigawatts in 2015 to 450 gigawatts in 2025, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The cost of solar and wind technology has tumbled it the past few years, stimulating demand.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Maycock

The trend for dramatic changes and consolidation in the solar market is expected to continue “in the foreseeable future,” said David Renne, president of the International Solar Energy Society, in an e-mail.

“However, overall, the low price of PV makes it very competitive in current energy markets, and will only be more cost-competitive in the future as deployments continue to grow at double-digit rates,” he said. “I have a very positive outlook on the solar industry overall, although I regret to see the problems encountered by SunEdison.”

SunEdison’s struggles will mainly affect SunEdison, rather than the entire clean-energy market, said Dan Whitten, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“Not every company in the solar market is going to stand the test of time,” he said in a statement Thursday. “SunEdison is just one company and today’s development does not reflect a trend of the broader industry.”

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