SunEdison, the largest renewable-energy firm in the world went bust last week with $16.1 billion of debt, making it the biggest U.S. bankruptcy in more than a year. In a nutshell, they were victims of their own success, as they grew too fast and burned way too much borrowed money in the process.
Their bankruptcy says more about reckless investor strategy than about the solar industry as a whole.
Bad Strategy: Too much focus on Growth
In 2014, SunEdison created two subsidiaries, called “yieldcos”, to manage the projects that it built assets for. They are called TerraForm Power and TerraForm Global, both separate and publicly traded. The purpose of these “yieldcos” was to purchase energy projects from SunEdison and other developers at lower capital costs and attract (read: lure) investors who expected reliable dividends based on long-term power contracts.
Unsurprisingly, not all of its their investments proved successful, which is the name of the game in the project development world, but SunEdison’s win to loss ratio was evidently lopsided. It ended up with a lot of money tied it up in projects at various stages of completion, which it needed to sell to realise the gains and pay back creditors.
In order to make sure that the yieldcos had projects to develop, SunEdison had to grow, quick. That took a lot of (borrowed) money.
Circling the Drain
Things turned sour in July 2015, after it announced that it would try to acquire Vivint, a residential solar roof-top company, at a 52% premium (!). That deal for residential assets deemed inferior to the commercial assets SunEdison usually bought (read: utility-scale projects) hinted to investors that SunEdison may not have as much liquidity as they thought. And investor appetite for the yieldco abruptly ended.
SunEdison vs. Creditors
Things are also ugly between SunEdisons first- and second-lien lenders who are fighting over who will give them the money they need to get out of the bankruptcy.
- If the first-lien lenders win: they will fire sell all of SunEdison’s projects, which would be disastrous for the solar market because there would be many solar projects on the market, resulting in lower prices for these projects.
- If the second-lien lenders win: they will attempt to get more value out of these projects, the first-lien lenders, which is better for the solar market. There is a lot of value in the project pipeline, which ultimately comprises cash-generating assets not tied to the continued existence of SunEdison, and it would be a shame if they were sold below value. But this will take time since investors will take time to do the due diligence to value these projects before buying them.
This does not bode well
SunEdison started off as having an investment portfolio of utility scale projects backed by governments, to investing in residential solar roof-top backed by private investors, therefore substantially increasing risk. Their free cash flow was negative and their net debt skyrocketed and eventually led to the bankruptcy. But SunEdison is not unique in that regard. Solarcity, SunPower and First Solar have managed a develop-and-sell business profitably over the past three years and are engaging in similar growth strategies all in plain view.