3 Reasons SunPower Is Leading the Charge in Solar

Shares of SunPower are exploding higher again today, continuing a wild run the stock has been on since late 2012. SunPower hasn't been the only stock moving higher over the past three months, but it is one of the biggest movers.

First Solar has also moved higher as sentiment for solar has improved, but not in the same fashion. Suntech Power , the Chinese giant, is having a good year as well, although leverage is playing a big role in that.

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I think this is just the start for SunPower, and here are the three biggest reasons why.

Efficiency
What separates SunPower from the competition is the efficiency of its panels. SunPower has panels that are 21% efficient when most module makers are selling traditional panels in the range of 15% to 16% efficiency. First Solar has conversion efficiency of just 12.7%, which is why the company focuses on projects where it can reduce balance of system costs and make the cost of electricity competitive.

The advantage of efficiency is that you can get more power from the same installation. There's little need to increase the cost of wiring, inverters, land, or permitting -- just use a more efficient panel. As the cost of panels have become a smaller percentage of the total cost to install solar this is a key, particularly in the residential market.

GTM Research estimated that the average cost for a Chinese best in class solar module during Q4 was $0.59 per watt. That would be a component cost that goes into an installation that on average costs $5.21 per watt in a residential setting, or $2.40 per watt for utility scale (Q3 2012 the latest available). If the cost of the module is a relatively small percentage of the total installation cost, it's worth upgrading to a more efficient one, even if it's more expensive. I ran through an example that illustrates how a more efficient panel will actually save money in an article found here.

Balance sheet
SunPower doesn't have the best balance sheet in the world, but compared to other solar manufacturers, it looks like a model citizen. Cash stands at $504 million with $839 million in debt. Keep in mind that non-GAAP gross margin stood at 18.7% last quarter.

Compare that to Chinese rivals, and SunPower looks great. Suntech Power had net debt of $1.6 billion as of the first quarter of 2012, the last time we got detailed financials. Considering that the company has lost tens of millions since then, it's safe to say the balance sheet has gotten worse.

Yingli Green Energy had $1.9 billion in net debt as of the third quarter and reported a negative gross margin of 22.7%.

LDK Solar makes even Chinese companies look bad, with $2.7 billion in net debt and a negative 11.2% gross margin. There's no way the company can dig out of that hole without a handout from the Chinese government.

These three stocks have risen along with SunPower over the past three months, but they show no signs of making a profit, and they have no discernable way to pay off current debt loads. SunPower, on the other hand, has relatively little debt, positive margins, and the backing of oil giant Total even if times get tough.

Research and development
To stay ahead in solar, you have to keep improving your products and cut costs, all at the same time. SunPower does both by investing in R&D, something few other solar manufacturers do.

In 2012, SunPower spent $63 million in R&D, cutting costs 25%, rolling out third-generation Maxeon solar cells and a 21% efficient panel, and moving forward with the C7 Tracker, which could improve the company's offerings in the utility space.

As the industry's competition improves, this will continue to be a key differentiator for SunPower. When you start with better panels, and you have the R&D to improve from there, it is very difficult for competitors to catch up.

Foolish bottom line
Solar is exploding right now, and SunPower is leading the way. I don't think the momentum stops here considering the strong balance sheet, improving income statement, high efficiency, and focus on developing new products. 

One of the likely solar winners
SunPower may be taking the glory right now, but let's not forget about First Solar, one of only a few solar companies that actually turn a profit. If you're looking for continuing updates and guidance on the company whenever news breaks, we've created a bra-new report that details every mu-know side of this stock. To get started, just click here now.

The article 3 Reasons SunPower Is Leading the Charge in Solar originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Travis Hoium manages an account that owns shares of SunPower. Travis Hoium personally owns shares of SunPower and has the following options: Long Jan 2015 $7 Calls on SunPower, Long Jan 2015 $5 Calls on SunPower, and Long Jan 2015 $15 Calls on SunPower. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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