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Demand for its products helps SolarCity beat expectations

SolarCity, the California solar energy systems installer that is building a huge solar panel factory in Buffalo, said Tuesday that demand for its rooftop power plants continues to grow rapidly.

The company said it booked orders for more solar energy systems than ever before during the first quarter, while the generating capacity of the systems it installed during the first three months of the year topped analyst forecasts by about 6 percent.

And SolarCity said it remains on target to meet its previously stated goal of installing solar energy systems with the capacity to generate 920 megawatts to 1,000 megawatts of electricity this year. At 1,000 megawatts, SolarCity would be in a position to use every solar panel produced by the Buffalo factory, once it is operating at full capacity, scheduled for early 2017.

But because the company bears the upfront costs for the solar energy systems that it installs, while receiving payments from customers that can stretch for 20 to 30 years, SolarCity loses money by conventional accounting standards.

During the second quarter, the company lost $21.5 million, or 22 cents per share, which was less than the $24.1 million, or 26 cents per share that it lost a year ago.

Analysts said SolarCity isn’t likely to be profitable for a long time.

SolarCity “is a long-term cash flow story, not a near-term profitability story,” Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Ben Kallo said in a research note on Monday, before the company released its quarterly earnings.

Excluding some items, SolarCity lost $1.52 per share, which was its biggest loss since the company went public in December 2012, but better than the loss of $1.66 per share that analysts were expecting.

SolarCity’s revenues rose by 6 percent to $67.5 million from $63.5 million.

The company said it installed solar energy systems with the capacity to generate 153 megawatts of electricity during the quarter, up 87 percent from a year ago and better than the 145 megawatts it had forecast.

It booked orders to install another 237 megawatts of systems during the quarter, up 74 percent from a year ago. Residential bookings, which account for most of SolarCity’s business, rose by 69 percent.

The company added 27,838 customers during the quarter, putting SolarCity more than 20 percent toward its goal of having 1 million customers by mid-2018. The company’s customer base has nearly doubled over the past year.

SolarCity has been focusing on ways to reduce the cost of its solar energy systems in the face of a scheduled expiration of a 30 percent federal tax credit for residential solar systems at the end of 2016.

Company executives believe the Buffalo factory now under construction on South Park Avenue can help SolarCity significantly reduce its costs by producing solar panels that are more efficient than the ones it currently uses in such high volume that it also provides the company with substantial savings from greater efficiency and economies of scale.

During the first quarter, SolarCity’s costs were 9 percent lower than they were a year ago, at $2.93 per watt, but that was 2 percent higher than during the previous fourth quarter, when they averaged $2.86 per watt. SolarCity executives said the increase in costs from late last year stemmed from lower volumes during the typically slow winter months.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com