The purchase by Total SA (NYSE:TOT) of a controlling interest in Sun Power (SPWRA) is sending shock waves through the solar industry.
The investment in 60% of the Class A and Class B shares would value SunPower at around $2.3 billion — up about 40% from the pre-offering price.
Even with the jump, Sun Power is only the second most valuable US solar company. First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) now has a market cap of $12b. Of course, First Solar is the world’s second largest solar company (by 2010 PV capacity) and thus is nearly in a league by itself.
Various reports position this as a decision by oil companies to diversify their energy business against future shifts in supply and demand. Here’s the Dow Jones version:
Total, which has had an active solar focus since 1983, decided to invest in SunPower after a two to three-year search "for a strategic partner in the solar business," Philippe Boisseau, head of Total's gas and power division, said in an interview. He added that solar power will become a crucial energy source in Europe and North America and that Total intends to become a global leader in the solar industry, in addition to its core oil and natural gas businesses.
"Solar will gradually take its share" of the world's energy market, Boisseau said. "We want to be there when this happens."
Of course we’ve been down this road before — oil companies bought solar companies in the 1980s but didn’t do a terribly good job of running them.
Given the IPO difficulties faced by other solar companies (like other other tech startups), the idea of acquisition by big oil companies has raised the market value (and hopes) of other solar companies — both private and public. For example, Motley Fool wonders whether LDK Solar might be undervalued.
But will there be any US solar companies a decade now? Will they be subsidiaries of oil companies (or Chinese solar companies)?
I would think that a company that manufactures a high-volume, high-demand product should be able to create a positive cashflow self-funding business. The real problem is how much capital does it take to get to that point?
The seven large Chinese crystalline silicon PV companies got $30b in government money to create scale. There’s no US company that’s going to get $4b in private venture or debt financing. Being acquired by a big sugar daddy is the only way they can get this kind of money.
At $4.2b, Total SA’s recent quarterly profits are only the fifth largest of the world’s oil companies, leaving four other companies with even more cash to fund expansion of a PV manufacturer.