By Michael Kanellos
The deal between SunPower (SPWRA) and Total (NYSE:TOT) is all about hitting the accelerator.
Total, the massive oil and gas conglomerate from France, will provide the industrial and financial muscle to allow SunPower to both cut the costs of building solar power plants and more easily and quickly expand its manufacturing footprint, executives from both companies said in an interview today.
"You've got one of the best balance sheets on the planet," said Tom Werner, SunPower CEO. "It takes capital to build large power plants."
The scale and financial heft Total can bring to SunPower will likely reverberate through the whole solar market. Solar companies must spend inordinate amounts of time and money chasing down capital for their projects; the cost of capital is one of the largest, and more unpredictable, variables when it comes to figuring out the cost of solar power. A big brother like Total could simplify the process for SunPower as well it make it far, far easier for SunPower to undercut competitors.
Then again, the enthusiasm could easily fade. The solar efforts inside BP and Shell often seem to swing between periods of corporate exuberance and indifference. A new fracking technology conceivably could snuff interest in solar overnight.
Total's revenue came to $62.97 billion in the first quarter alone, while operating profit came to $1.89 per share. The company operates in 130 countries. By contrast, SunPower's annual 2010 revenue came to $2.22 billion. By 2011, revenue is expected to hit $2.8 billion to $2.95 billion.
"The idea is to grow faster," Werner added, further adding that Total is buying 60 percent of SunPower so that it will be able to keep control over its investment and SunPower's balance sheet.
How fast is faster? Werner isn't saying yet. SunPower won't go bonkers. The company will grow in a "disciplined way" he said, but it will likely revise its current factory output upward. At the end of 2010, SunPower had 580 megawatts of manufacturing capacity, and it will have 1 gigawatt of capacity by the end of the year. The company has said it would have 2 gigawatts by 2014.
Phillippe Boisseau, the president of Total's gas and power division, further added that Total's existing solar assets -- which currently include a cell company (Photovoltech) and a module company called Tenesol with a cumulative factory capacity of 170 megawatts -- will be consolidated under SunPower after the deal is approved.
Does that mean Tenesol will be sold off? What about Total's investment in Konarka? Right now, no one knows, but considering that SunPower prides itself on its distinctive solar technology, it's a good bet some of these assets may be hawked in the equivalent of a garage sale.
Total's renewable goals began in 2007 when Christophe de Margerie took over as CEO and issued a mandate to diversify.
"We were not beyond petroleum [a jab at BP], but on top of petroleum," said Boisseau. "Oil and gas cannot meet the demand alone."
After years of placing venture investments and entering the market for solar itself, Total realized that it would have to find an established partner instead. It looked at 200 companies and began discussions with SunPower nine months ago.
Total also plans to expand into biomass but will likely grow organically and not through acquisition, said Boisseau. The only other major joint venture Total has right now and for the freezable future in renewables is with Amyris, the biofuel and green chemical manufacturer. (Amyris today announced its first commercial-scale facility). Total owns 22 percent of Amyris.
France? A greentech power? It's an unusual trend, but a big one. Schneider Electric has bought five companies in recent months to expand its portfolio in building management and power delivery. Saint-Gobain, mirror maker to Louis XIV, invested $80 million into smart window maker Sage Electrochromics. Areva, the French nuclear giant, bought solar thermal company Ausra last year. Veolia, also from France, has begun to invest in and partner with water startups.
Oh, and Nissan-Renault leads in electric cars. (Historical note: in 1839, Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with an electrolyte cell. A year later, August Mouchet proposed the idea of solar-powered steam engines. Then, in 1859, 150 years ago, Gaston Plante invented the lead acid battery. He demonstrated it at the French Academy of Sciences a year later.)
Under the terms of the deal, Total will, through a subsidiary, launch a tender offer to buy up to 60 percent of SunPower's Class A shares and 60 percent of the Class B shares for $23.25 a share. It represents a 46 percent premium over the current price of SunPower's A shares as of April 27 and a 49 percent premium over the B shares. Total will also issue $1 billion in credit to SunPower.
If all goes well and the transaction goes through, SunPower will continue to operate under its current management. In all, it will cost Total around $2.3 billion.