Vivint Solar CEO: Republican Congress will be good for industry

November 11, 2014, 4:22 PM UTC
Construction At The Tenaska Imperial Solar Energy Center South Project
Contractors for First Solar Inc. work on construction of the Tenaska Imperial Solar Energy Center South project in Imperial County, California, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. The Tenaska Imperial Solar Energy Center South, when completed, will be a ground-mounted photovoltaic solar power generating system producing enough energy to meet the needs of at least 44,000 California homes, according to the Tenaska web site. Photographer: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Sam Hodgson — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Vivint Solar (VSLR) yesterday reported its first quarterly earnings since going public last month, reporting a net loss of $0.45 per share on $8.3 million in revenue. It also said to expect a Q4 slowdown in installations, but that it still would meet (and likely surpass) its annual megawatt goals.

While the Q4 slowdown is to be expected, due to winter weather, it’s a bit more unusual to hear a cleantech CEO who seems to sunny about the arrival of a Republican Congressional majority. But that’s the sentiment of Vivint Solar boss Greg Butterfield, who explained his thinking in a phone interview with Fortune.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

FORTUNE: How important is the federal government to the solar industry, regardless of which party is in control?

BUTTERFIELD: I think the federal government steps in whenever something must be done to benefit the broader public. For example, it has offered subsidies for oil and gas since just about forever. It also provides the ITC tax credit for solar, which has been instrumental for us to build a renewable, lower-cost energy service. There is a step-down in the credit anticipated for 2016, but we believe we’ll still be successful after that happens. Actually, from a competitive standpoint, it may be good for us because one challenge to any subsidy is that it can prop up some under-performing companies that otherwise might not exist… But I don’t know that it would be good for the consumer.

Conventional wisdom has been that Democrats support green energy companies and Republicans do not. Is this not a fair dichotomy?

I would agree with that from a historical perspective, but the unique thing about solar’s value proposition now is that it’s equally important to both political parties. Whether blue or red, left or right. For Democrats and environmentalists, it’s positive because it helps change how the world views energy and helps us quit depleting natural resources. For the other side, solar can be about freedom of choice and companies that are creating thousands of jobs. What you really have here is capitalists making environmentalists happy, which doesn’t happen too often, and consumers are getting lower overall energy costs.

But hasn’t that ‘freedom of choice’ issue always been present? There’s no more freedom in choosing solar panels in 2014 than in 1984.

I think the main difference is that the solar industry is now much more mature. There have been significant advancements in making the technology more efficient and cheaper. By the time of the proposed step-down, we’ll have more than 40 states at grid parity — so this is really a new model and new way to create a more reliable choice in powere.

Any concerns that the tax credit ‘step-down’ could become more pronounced by this Congress?

I have not heard of anyone saying it will be a cliff, although I have heard certain people propose that the step-down not be as significant. If you look at the state level, the public utilities commissions are being more than fair.

From a business standpoint, are you just rationalizing or are you truly pleased with last Tuesday’s results?

I’m truly pleased. I live in Utah, which is very conservative, and my background in in building companies from nothing to billions of dollars in value. This is probably the best solution I’ve seen in my 25-plus year career, and think it is appreciated by red and blue because both of them include consumers and shareholders.

How important is the future success of companies like Vivint to getting venture capitalists to once again take chances on early-stage cleantech companies?

I think the better we do, the more fuel it adds back on the fire. I’ve been in VC myself, prior to coming here, and I think what happened is that a lot of people lost a lot of money and got scared. But there have been major disruptions in the technology. Whereas before you had subsidies holding up certain companies that maybe weren’t sound financially without them, we now have us and Tesla and SolarCity and a bunch of companies doing well by using more modern technology. I think that, over time, it will help create more early-stage investment.

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