Tesla makes the most money from selling and leasing electric vehicles, solar energy systems and energy storage products.
In addition, Tesla also makes money from selling electricity generated from its own solar energy systems.
Best selling energy storage products such as the Powerwall and Powerpack are another line of Tesla’s revenue generators.
These are the typical money-making products for Tesla.
But what you may not know is that Tesla has another source of income that has been contributing hundreds of millions of dollars every quarter, and up to half a billion dollars in 1Q 2021 alone, to the company’s bank accounts.
And that revenue source, which is created literally out of thin air, comes from the so-called “Regulatory Credits”.
What are Regulatory Credits?
Regulatory Credits are credits or points given by the state and federal government for contributing zero pollution to the environment.
Basically, in the state of California and some other states in the US, auto manufacturers such as Tesla, Ford, General Motors and so on are required by laws to meet certain minimum emission standards for all the vehicles they produce and sell.
Otherwise, they will face hefty fines or risk having their license revoked by the state government for failing to meet these emission standards.
In simple terms, auto manufacturers are required to meet these emission standards and the only way for them to be in compliance with the requirements is to either improve their own vehicles’ emission or switch to manufacturing emission-free electric vehicle for 100% compliance or to purchase regulatory credits from other automakers that have excess credits such as Tesla.
The laws provide that automakers such as Tesla may keep the excess credits if they earn more credits than the minimum amount required. Auto manufacturers with a surplus of credits may sell their credits to other manufacturers, who can use the credits to comply with the laws.
ZEV and GHG Regulatory Credits
Since the vehicles produced by Tesla emit zero-emission, over the years, Tesla has earned a substantial amount of “Regulatory Credits” or sometimes referred to as ZEV (Zero-Emission Vehicles) credits under the state of California, which Tesla can sell to other auto manufactures.
The GHG credit or Green House Gas credit is another regulatory credit similar to ZEV credit where it’s applicable at the federal level requiring automakers to comply with the emission standard.
Based on the 2020 annual report, Tesla generated sales that totaled as much as $1.58 billion, $594 million and $419 million for the years ended on December 2020, 2019 and 2018 respectively from selling regulatory credits alone.
That’s quite a lot of money from a “product” literally with zero cost to produce.
The good news for Tesla’s investors is that the revenue from the sales of regulatory credits would most likely be increasing over time in the future when Tesla accelerates its goal of transitioning the world to renewable energy.
Keep in mind that Tesla has only commanded a market share of less than 1% in most of the regions in the world as shown in the following snapshot.
For this reason, Tesla’s sales of regulatory credits will most likely be increasing or even surging in the foreseeable future when the world is slowly transitioning from fossil fuel to all-electric vehicles.
In fact, we are seeing that Tesla’s regulatory credits sales have been increasing by an average of 85% year over year since 2012, according to the results in the plots below.
Tesla’s Sale of Regulatory Credits
The diagram above shows the specific Tesla’s business segment that collects the revenue from regulatory credits sales.
As seen from the diagram, the sales of regulatory credits are recognized and reported under Tesla’s automotive sector.
Under the automotive sector, Tesla’s regulatory credits revenues are combined and lumped together with other revenue sources, including new vehicle deliveries, sales of Supercharging and autopilot, etc to arrive at the aggregated automotive sales revenue.
As of 1Q 2021, Tesla’s carbon credits sales comprised about 6% of the automotive sales revenue on a quarterly basis.
On a yearly basis, Tesla’s carbon credits revenue also made up the same 6% of the automotive revenue in 2020.
Tesla’s Regulatory Credits Revenue (Yearly)
The chart above shows Tesla’s revenue from regulatory credits for the past 8 years from 2012 to 2021 on a yearly basis.
According to the chart, Tesla’s sales of regulatory credits have been increasing year over year at a CAGR of 57% between 2012 and 2020.
Tesla’s regulatory credits revenue reached the highest at nearly $1.6 billion in fiscal 2020, a record high for the company.
Year to date, Tesla made more than $500 million in the 1Q 2021 quarter alone from regulatory credits revenue.
In terms of growth, Tesla’s regulatory credits revenue growth accelerates the most from 2019 to 2020, almost tripling year over year.
Tesla has benefited immensely from the sales of regulatory credits when it comes to boosting its gross margin and profitability.
Tesla’s Regulatory Credits Revenue (Quarterly)
On a quarterly basis, Tesla’s regulatory credits revenue has been increasing steadily over the years, with 2020 being the best performing year when regulatory credits sales hit record highs of more than $300 million in 4 consecutive quarters.
According to the chart, in the first 3 quarters alone in 2020, Tesla has raked in nearly $1.2 billion of sales in regulatory credits, including both ZEV and GHG credits.
In 2020 Q4, Tesla’s sales of regulatory credits hit $400 million. Cumulatively, Tesla’s sales of regulatory credits totaled nearly $1.6 billion by 4Q in 2020.
As of Q1 2021, Tesla’s regulatory credits sales soared beyond $500 million for the 1st time on a quarterly basis.
Tesla’s Ratio of Regulatory Credits to Total Revenue
The chart above shows the ratio of regulatory credits revenue with respect to total revenue expressed in percentage.
From the chart, the percentage has dropped drastically from 10% in 2012 to just 2.4% in 2019.
However, the percentage ticked slightly higher to 5% in 2020 when Tesla reported a record carbon credits sales of $1.58 billion.
Subsequently, Tesla’s ratio of regulatory credits to total sales stood at the 5% level in 2020 Q1.
The continuous decline of the ratio shows that Tesla’s sales of other revenue segments, the automotive sector, in particular, have grown at a much faster pace.
However, the recent increase of the ratio from 2.4% reported in 2019 to 5% reported in 2020 illustrates that sales of carbon credits have outpaced that of total revenue.
Tesla’s recent surge in vehicle delivery volume has probably caused the surge in its regulatory credits revenue.
While Tesla may have posted record sales of regulatory credits in 2020, the ratio represents only 5% of the company’s total revenue.
On the surface, the 5% ratio may seem negligible, it was actually almost as big as the solar revenue that Tesla generated in 2020.
Eventually, Tesla’s other revenue sources, including automotive sales, were still the major revenue contributor to the company.
Tesla Regulatory Credits Revenue Growth Rates
The plot above shows the year-on-year (YoY) growth rates of Tesla’s regulatory credits revenue from 2013 to 2020.
From the plot, the YoY growth rates for Tesla’s regulatory credits sales had been almost entirely positive in all years except in 2015.
In 2020, Tesla reported the best YoY growth rate at 166% when its regulatory credits revenue surged beyond $1 billion for the first time.
In a separate calculation, Tesla’s regulatory credits revenue growth average around 85% between 2012 and 2020.
Tesla’s carbon credits sales will continue to grow at a double-digit growth rate, considering that the adoption of electric vehicles is still in its infancy and represents less than 5% of global vehicle sales in 2020.
Effect of Regulatory Credits on Gross Margin (Quarterly)
The chart above shows Tesla’s quarterly gross margin comparison for automotive revenue with and without regulatory credit revenue.
Critics have argued that the sales of regulatory credits have artificially boosted Tesla’s gross margin and thus the company’s profitability.
These arguments are valid to some degree because Tesla’s revenue from the sales of emission credits is not sustainable in the long run.
Tesla may run out of emission credits buyers in the future when most, if not all, automakers switch to manufacturing EVs.
According to the chart, Tesla’s regulatory credits revenue has certainly helped to boost automotive gross margin.
In Tesla’s case, the improvement in gross margin can be as low as 2% to as high as 6%.
For instance, Tesla reported the biggest jump in gross margin, an improvement of as much as 6% in Q2 2020, when regulatory credits revenue was recognized as part of the automotive sales.
Similarly, we are seeing a 3% boost in gross margin in Q4 2020 when ZEV and GHG credits sales were taken into consideration.
The effect of the carbon credits sales continued into 2021 1Q when Tesla’s automotive gross margin reached 26.5% with the help of emission credits revenue.
However, its automotive gross margin dropped to only 22% when emission credits revenue was taken off the calculation in the same quarter.
In short, it’s without a doubt that Tesla’s regulatory credits revenue has artificially boosted not only the gross margin but also the profitability.
Effect of Regulatory Credits on Gross Margin (TTM)
To smooth out the quarterly plot and to better show the trend, I have created the trailing 12-months (TTM) plot as shown in the chart above.
Again, Tesla reported the biggest improvement in the automotive gross margin throughout 2020 when regulatory credits sales were the highest.
On a TTM basis, Tesla’s automotive gross margin with and without regulatory credits sales differed by as much as 4% in most quarters in 2020.
The gap between Tesla’s automotive gross margin with and without emission credits revenue maintained at 4% in 1Q 2021.
However, the gap started to diverge significantly since the 1st quarter of 2020, indicating that the effects of regulatory credits on gross margin have increased considerably when it moved closer to the latest quarter.
When the effect of emission credits revenue kicked in, Tesla’s TTM automotive gross margin reached nearly 26% in 2021 Q1.
Tesla’s automotive gross margin dipped to only 21.5% without the effect of emission credits in the same quarter.
Tesla’s Operating Profit Without Regulatory Credits Revenue
Is Tesla profitable without the regulatory or emission credits revenue?
That’s the question that we will answer in this discussion.
Let’s first look at Tesla’s operating profit which is shown in the chart above.
The chart shows 2 operating profit plots, one with regulatory credits and the other one without.
As seen, Tesla’s operating profit dipped to only $500 million in 1Q 2021 on a TTM basis without regulatory credits revenue.
The difference between the 2 operating profit plots is huge.
For example, in 1Q 2021 quarter, Tesla’s operating profit was boosted by about $1.8 billion when the effect of emission credits kicked in.
While Tesla made only $500 million in TTM operating profit without regulatory credits, Tesla was still profitable from an operational perspective.
Tesla’s Net Profit Without Regulatory Credits Revenue
Similarly, Tesla’s net profit dipped to -$600 million without regulatory credit revenue in 1Q 2021.
With regulatory credits sales, Tesla’s net profit jumped to more than $1 billion on a TTM basis in the same quarter.
Additionally, as the plots move closer to the latest quarter, the gap between the 2 plots gets larger, indicating that the effect of emission credits on Tesla’s profitability is increasingly profound.
All in all, Tesla would have been non-profitable without the sales of regulatory credits.
Tesla’s regulatory credits revenue has been growing at an average annual growth rate of 85% between 2012 and 2020, with 2020 being the best year when Tesla posted emission credit sales that surged beyond $1 billion.
In 2020, Tesla reported a regulatory credit revenue of $1.58 billion, beating all prior records.
Albeit less significant in contributing to total revenue, the regulatory credit sales have helped Tesla to improve its automotive gross margin and generate profits.
The improvement can range from 2% to 6%, depending on the amount of carbon credits sales.
We have seen that the larger the revenue from regulatory credits, the bigger the boost in automotive gross margin and profits.
Also, Tesla’s TTM net profits dived to -$600 million without regulatory credits revenue.
References and Credits
1. All financial figures in this article were obtained and referenced from Tesla’s quarterly and annual reports available in Tesla Update Letters and Presentations.
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