Can Tesla's Battery System Actually Live Up To The Hype?

By Michael McDonald for Oilprice.com

Elon Musk certainly has a streak of PT Barnum in him.

On May 6 the widely known and frequently controversial boss of Tesla Motors (TSLA) introduced the company’s latest product that could upend energy markets: stationary batteries. Tesla’s new batteries come in a variety of sizes and are intended to store energy for a variety of customers from industrial firms and utility companies to residential customers. If they take off, they could dramatically reduce the cost of storing electricity by individual companies or households.

Tesla’s stock is so controversial that virtually any new announcement from the company is immediately polarizing, with some decrying Tesla’s stock valuation as absurd and others seeing each new announcement as life-changing. Thus it is no surprise that Tesla’s battery announcement has generated the same level of fervor.

What is surprising is that much of the commentary on the batteries, both positive and negative, seems to be completely missing the elephant in the room. After Tesla announced earnings last week, Musk alluded to “crazy off-the-hook” demand for batteries. After some basic calculations, it looks like initial reservations for the firms batteries might have come to about $800M in the first week. That’s certainly a substantial figure though it comes with the obvious caveat that reservations are not the same as sales.

Nonetheless, two important points are worth noting here. First, of the $800M in sales, roughly $600M are from business users. One might be able to make an argument that flighty consumers are excited about buying batteries but when the time comes to pay, they won’t actually end up buying. It’s much harder to make that argument about business-to-business orders. Businesses generally don’t buy into hype the same way that consumers do, and they are a more stable and reliable source of demand. That bodes well for Tesla.

Second, and just as importantly, Elon Musk has not invented anything new with this battery. That’s not a bad thing. Throughout history, the people who have made fortunes off of a product are frequently not the same people who invent the product. Invention and effective commercialization require two different skillsets. Elon Musk appears to fall into the latter category. Maybe the best analogy to Musk is Henry Ford, a man who was equally controversial in his day.

A lot of Ford’s ideas were controversial, from the gigantic Rouge River Plant that was once the largest factory in the world to paying his workers an unheard of $5 a day to avoid problems with turnover. Today, Ford is accepted as a genius businessman and one of the pioneers of American capitalism, but in his own time he was very controversial, especially with Wall Street.

Tesla is controversial for a whole host of reasons, but even his detractors would have to agree that before Musk came along electric cars were not taken seriously. Now they are seen as a viable threat to the internal-combustion engine. The same thing may end up being true with stationary batteries. Tesla has the PR machine in place to get immediate attention for its stationary batters, allowing it to jump start sales.

Moreover, the new Gigafactory could see strong demand for its batteries. Tesla’s factory has received a lot of criticism for being too large – the Gigafactory may produce as many batteries on an annual basis as the entire world built in 2014. Ford’s Rouge River Plant once received the same criticism.

And while some critics question the validity of Tesla’s demand projections, pointing to the high cost of both solar power and battery storage, this argument fails to recognize two factors.

First, Tesla’s battery can instantly be used in many states to arbitrage between electricity pricing costs by generating (or just buying from the grid) electricity at off-peak prices and then selling it back to utilities at peak prices.

Second, for roughly one-third of the country electricity prices from the grid are already high enough that Tesla’s solution makes economic sense. California of course has very high electric prices, but what some people do not realize is that the roughly 50 million people in the Northeast also have power prices high enough to make Tesla’s solution make sense. Connecticut for example has peak power prices over $0.25 per Kwh plus various surcharges.

In an environment like that, Tesla’s solution will be very attractive for many consumers and businesses.

This article was originally published on Oilprice.com.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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