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Study: Is Elon Musk’s SolarCity The Next Enron?

Is the Elon Musk-backed company SolarCity the next Enron? A new report argues this might just be the case.

Like Enron, SolarCity and the solar industry’s complex financing schemes could create a “bubble” that will eventually burst and leave taxpayers exposed, argues a new report by the free-market Taxpayers Protection Alliance. SolarCity is a major player in this sketchy financial game.

“Perhaps a more apt comparison is with another famed energy sector player named Enron, which also soared to great heights through enormously complex, unconventional, and high-risk wheeling-and-dealing, before collapsing in a similarly-spectacular fashion in 2001, resulting in the then-largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history,” writes TPA’s president David Williams.

“The Enron scandal was allowed to unfold because investors, bankers, and even accounting firms trusted that the wizards inside the company knew what they were doing,” Williams added. “And as long as the balance sheets showed promise — and the supposed-financial wizards at the helm exuded enough bravado — few cared, or dared, to look more closely.”

More and more Americans have been turning to companies like SolarCity to lease solar panels for their homes. The idea is that installing rooftop panels will bring down your energy costs, and financing is one way to make this affordable for more people.

But there’s an ugly underside to solar panel leases, says Williams. These companies are using government tax benefits and subsidies to push a shaky financial model that is not yet proven to be profitable. SolarCity, for example, recently moved into the vacant offices of the now bankrupt Solyndra — a highly symbolic move, but one that masked another troubling announcement.

“The same week that brought news of SolarCity’s symbolic move … [the company] reported a net loss of $141 million for the 4th quarter of 2014, despite a 52 percent increase in revenue, strong demand, and clear dominance in the rooftop solar market,” Williams wrote. “That compared to a nearly $40 million loss during the same period in 2013.”

But SolarCity, where Musk is the principal investor and chairman of the board, is just one cog in the solar industry machine. And it’s a machine that’s growing. Big corporations like Apple, Google and Facebook are using solar and wind to power their data centers and are spending millions to bring more panels online.

U.S. solar power reached 20 gigawatts of installed capacity in March 2015, according to industry estimates. In 2014, 32 percent of new electric generating capacity came from solar power. Even the military is using solar to offset its reliance on traditional fuels and power plants.

The solar industry’s rapid growth, however, has largely been propelled by federal, state and local subsidies and mandates. The main policy states have used to boost solar panel use is called “net metering” — a system by which solar panel users produce power which they can sell to a utility at retail rates.

Utilities have pushed back against net metering policies because the pricing structure creates a situation where solar panel users don’t have to pay for using the grid, meaning those without solar panels are forced to pay more.

It’s exactly these types of policies that Williams says has created a solar “gold rush” which could crash if subsidies are pulled. Williams notes the “hidden risks that could turn the boom to a bust are less obvious.”

“That raises dangers not just for taxpayers but for an artificially pumped up industry that’s playing fast and loose with other people’s money and growing at an unsustainable rate,” Williams wrote.

“Look past [SolarCity’s] audacious ambitions and explosive growth,” Williams wrote. “Ignore for a moment the Musk mystique and media hype that lends it cache and keeps customers and investors mesmerized. What you see is an untested business model heavily dependent on government handouts and financing schemes of baffling complexity, which have, thus far, produced more red ink than reliable energy.”

Update: A SolarCity spokesman responded to TPA’s report.

“Taxpayer Protection Alliance represents the interests of monopoly utilities, and its goal is to kill one of the most free market developments in the history of United States electricity markets. SolarCity has thousands of conservative customers who believe in their right to produce their own power by putting solar panels on their roofs,” the spokesman said. “Taxpayer Protection Alliance is working to protect monopoly interests, not the public interest in more jobs and more consumer choice.”

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