Maybe, a year or two from now, we’ll look back at Tesla Inc. and see that this is when the electric vehicle maker truly turned the corner.
If that turns out to be the case, it will be good news for Buffalo and the company’s ambitious plans to make its innovative solar roof at its sprawling RiverBend factory.
Tesla has only installed a few hundred of its solar roofs, which look like a conventional roof but have solar cells inside. But CEO Elon Musk was upbeat about the new solar product during a conference call on Wednesday, predicting that the factory’s limited production would start to increase later this year and into 2019.
“We now have several hundred homes with the solar roof on them, and that’s going well,” Musk said.
Of course, Tesla has been saying for some time that its solar roof would start ramping up later this year. But it was other things that Musk said, especially about its mass market Model 3 electric-powered sedan, that had some analysts thinking that this could be a watershed moment for Tesla. Investors thought so, too. Tesla’s shares rose 16 percent on Thursday.
To be sure, the second quarter wasn’t all that great. Tesla still reported another huge loss. The company burned through more than $700 million of its cash as it pulled out all the stops to ramp up production of its mass-market Model 3 sedan.
But Musk thinks the loss could be the last one, at least for as long as the economy stays strong. Musk said he expects Tesla to be profitable – and to generate more cash that it consumes – during the third and fourth quarters of this year.
He predicted that Tesla, which has struggled to reach its production targets, would build as many as 55,000 of its Model 3 sedans during the current quarter – almost twice as many as it made during the spring. As production rises, Tesla expects to make more money from each vehicle it sells. And he said future increases in production wouldn’t require as much new spending by the company as it took to build it up to this point.
“Our goal is to be profitable and cash-flow positive for every quarter going forward,” Musk said. And unless there’s a recession or an unexpected change in its business or markets, Musk said he’s confident that Tesla can be profitable “every quarter from here on out.”
That would be a huge turnaround for a company that has never reported an annual profit.
The second quarter “felt like there might finally be some light at the end of the tunnel,” wrote analysts at Evercore ISI. “Come the third quarter, we may even be able to see the end of the tunnel, or Elon’s ‘Production Hell.’ “
Oppenheimer’s Colin Rusch, who upgraded his rating on Tesla’s stock after the call, agreed. “With higher volumes and slower spending, we believe Tesla has reached a critical inflection point in its development,” he wrote.
Yet challenges remain. The company still is building Model 3s in a huge tent outside its California assembly plant. The $7,500 tax credit that consumers currently receive when they buy a Tesla electric vehicle will phase out during 2019, while it will still be available for electric vehicles made by most of its competitors. And while Tesla said it would sell the Model 3 for as little as $35,000, it is only taking orders for models that cost at least $49,000.
The company cut 9 percent of its workforce in June to conserve cash and it’s been keeping a lid on its solar energy installations after dropping door-to-door sales and scrapping an agreement to sell rooftop solar systems at Home Depot stores. It now plans to focus on selling solar products online or at its 347 stores, though it has solar products on display at only about 80 stores today.
That’s why Tesla’s solar energy business has been shrinking. While Tesla’s installations during the second quarter rose by 11 percent from the four-year low set during the first quarter, the 84 megawatts of solar energy generating capacity that the company deployed this spring were less than half of the 176 megawatts it deployed during the second quarter of last year.
Tesla also is struggling to produce enough of the battery cells that go into the Powerwall batteries that it often pairs with the solar roof. The Powerwall allows homeowners to store excess electricity for use at night or when the sun isn’t shining.
“We’re kind of cell starved for Powerwall right now,” Musk said. “We actually had to artificially limit the number of Powerwalls because we don’t have enough cells. So we’re solving for that very rapidly and we expect to ramp up Powerwall and Powerpack production substantially later this year and early next and as well as ramping up retrofit solar and then the solar roof.”
But those problems pale in comparison with the progress Tesla made toward resolving the Model 3 production issues that plagued it throughout this year.
“Only time will tell, but in our view, today’s results were clearly a step in the right direction,” Piper Jaffray analyst Alexander Potter wrote in a report Wednesday night. “A few years from now, investors may conclude that [the second quarter of 2018] was the quarter in which Tesla cemented its position as a truly formidable player in the global automotive market.”
A profitable Tesla, built around a solid electric vehicle business, will be in a better position to devote the time and resources needed to turn its solar energy business around and ramp up the solar roof in Buffalo.
“It takes a while to just confirm that the solar roof is going to last for 30 years and all the details work out, and we’re working with first responders to make sure it’s safe in the event of a fire and that kind of thing,” Musk said. “So it’s quite a long validation program for a roof which has got to last for 30, 40, 50 years.
“But we also expect to ramp that up next year at our Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo,” he said. “That’s going to be super exciting.”