Why Elon Musk’s Batteries Scare the Hell Out of the Electric Company

Why Elon Musk’s Batteries Scare the Hell Out of the Electric Company
By Mark Chediak Bloomberg

December 05, 2014 6:06 PM EST

Climate: Now or Never

Here’s why something as basic as a battery both thrills and terrifies the U.S. utility industry.

At a sagebrush-strewn industrial park outside of Reno, Nevada, bulldozers are clearing dirt for Tesla Motors Inc.’s battery factory, projected to be the world’s largest.

Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, sees the $5 billion facility as a key step toward making electric cars more affordable, while ending reliance on oil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At first blush, the push toward more electric cars looks to be positive for utilities struggling with stagnant sales from energy conservation and slow economic growth.

Yet Musk’s so-called gigafactory may soon become an existential threat to the 100-year-old utility business model. The facility will also churn out stationary battery packs that can be paired with rooftop solar panels to store power. Already, a second company led by Musk, SolarCity Corp., is packaging solar panels and batteries to power California homes and companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“The mortal threat that ever cheaper on-site renewables pose” comes from systems that include storage, said Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Snowmass, Colorado-based energy consultant. “That is an unregulated product you can buy at Home Depot that leaves the old business model with no place to hide.”

J.B. Straubel, chief technology officer for Palo Alto, California-based Tesla, said the company views utilities as partners not adversaries in its effort to build out battery storage. Musk was not available for comment.

The Tesla systems are arriving just as utilities begin to feel increasing pressure worldwide from the disruption posed by renewable energy.

Lima Meeting
In Germany, the rapid rise of tax-subsidized clean energy has undermined wholesale prices and decimated the profitability of coal and natural gas plants. Germany’s largest utility EON SE said this week it will spin off its fossil-fuel plant business to focus on renewables in part because of new clean energy competitors coming onto its turf.

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Threats to the traditional utility model come as energy and environment take the world stage at the latest round of United Nations climate talks that began Dec. 1 in Lima. Delegates, backed by global environmental groups, want to leave the conference with a draft agreement to tackle climate change by lowering carbon-dioxide emissions — something that has eluded them for years.

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Lovins has installed solar on his house in Snowmass and uses it to power his electric car. His monthly electric bill: $25. He has a lot of company.

100,000 Plug-ins
In California, where 40 percent of the nation’s plug-in cars have been sold, about half of electric vehicle owners have solar or want to install it, according to a February survey by the Center for Sustainable Energy, a green-energy advocate. More than 100,000 plug-ins have been sold in California, according to data from HybridCars.com and Baum & Associates, though EVs make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. car sales.

Few homes and businesses use solar and back-up-battery storage, proof for some utilities that the systems remain a hard sell outside of states like California or markets like Hawaii where high power costs make solar competitive.

Still, the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing America’s investor-owned utilities, recently announced that its members will help to encourage electric vehicle use by spending $50 million annually to buy plug-in service trucks and invest in car-charging technology.

“Advancing plug-in electric vehicles and technologies is an industry priority,” said EEI President Thomas Kuhn.

Charging Stations
Analysts think the industry has been slow to react. Tesla, SolarCity and green-energy companies are already moving aggressively into unoccupied space. “Some of the more nimble companies that think and move more quickly, they are beating the utilities to the punch,” said Ben Kallo, a San Francisco-based analyst for Robert W. Baird & Co.

Tesla has installed 135 fast-charging stations, some powered by solar, across North America where its Model S drivers can refuel for free. NRG Energy Inc. is building a network of public charging stations in major cities that drivers can access on a per-charge basis or for a flat monthly fee of about $15.

And then there’s the home front. In a July report, Morgan Stanley said Tesla’s home and business energy-storage product could be “disruptive” in the U.S. and in Europe as customers seek to avoid utility fees by going “off-grid.”

‘Sufficient Appreciation’
“We believe there is not sufficient appreciation of the magnitude of energy storage cost reduction that Tesla has already achieved, nor of the further cost reduction magnitude that Tesla might be able to achieve once the company has constructed its ‘gigafactory,’” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote.

Tesla sees itself taking on a grand mission — not just to lower emissions from cars and trucks, but to have a societal impact. “If we only do it on the transportation side, we ignore the utility side, and we are probably ignoring half of our responsibility,” said Mateo Jaramillo, director of powertrain business development at Tesla Motors, at the recent Platts California Power and Gas Conference in San Francisco.

Tesla and Oncor Electric Delivery, owner of the largest power-line network in Texas, have discussed a $2 billion investment in stationary battery storage to solve the problem of fluctuating output from wind and solar. Tesla and SolarCity are separate entities and only share management at the board level.

Tesla fell 2 percent today to $223.71 in New York.

Smart Home
A glimpse of that future can be seen in Davis, California, where Honda Motor Co. has developed a “smart home” that produces more energy than it uses while charging a plug-in car. The home was designed in collaboration with SolarCity, PG&E Corp. and the University of California at Davis to showcase energy-efficient and renewable technologies. It will serve as a home for a member of the UC Davis community and a lab for the study of new businesses and technologies.

SolarCity rival SunPower Corp. is offering its solar and storage systems to buyers of electric cars from Audi AG and rebates for solar-panels to Ford Motor Co. plug-in customers. SunPower also has struck a partnership with homebuilder KB Home to begin installing solar and storage systems in California.

The time when residents can charge their electric cars with excess solar stored in their home batteries is “not decades away, that is years away,” said SunPower CEO Tom Werner.

Holy Grail
Both SolarCity and SunPower say their goal isn’t to move customers completely off-grid, just to reduce their dependence on it. “Grid storage has been the Holy Grail for renewables because the energy is intermittent,” Kallo said. “Finding a way to store that is very powerful.”

For the power companies, the stakes are high.

In June, EEI issued a call to action, saying converting people from gasoline cars to electric vehicles is nearly essential for survival. The report concluded: “The bottom line is that the electric utility industry needs the electrification of the transportation sector to remain viable and sustainable in the long run.”

To that point, executives at some of the nation’s largest utilities from New York to California say they are preparing their grids for more plug-in cars, reaching out to automakers and working with regulators to make sure customers as well as the utilities benefit from the trend.

Natural Partnership
“I read a lot of articles about Elon Musk versus the utility companies,” said John Shipman, who heads electric vehicle programs at New York-based Consolidated Edison Co. “I don’t see it that way at all. There is a natural partnership that can exist there.”

In California, where electric vehicle adoption is the highest in the nation, and Governor Jerry Brown has set a goal of having 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025, utilities are already in the game.

“The electric grid will be just as important in the years to come because the grid is becoming the platform that makes it possible for people to plug in solar panels, batteries and charging stations,” said Ellen Hayes, a PG&E spokeswoman. “Having a solar panel that isn’t connected to the grid is like having a computer that’s not connected to the Internet.”

Edison International’s Southern California Edison and Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric have proposed investing about $500 million in car charging stations. Along with PG&E, they are backing a proposal that would loosen restrictions on utilities owning charging facilities.

Grid Upgrades
There is yet another side to the argument — can utilities manage the load?

“Electric vehicles can be the best thing to ever happen to our industry or the worst thing to ever happen to our industry,” said James Avery, a senior vice president at San Diego Gas & Electric.

Avery doesn’t foresee most customers leaving the grid, but does see the risk of an influx of electric cars that overtaxes the network. SDG&E, whose territory has the highest penetration of plug-ins in the U.S., plans to spend as much as $3.2 billion to upgrade its grid. It already offers cheaper rates for EV owners to charge overnight when power demand is lowest.

Southern California Edison is planning to spend about $9.2 billion through 2017 to allow the two-way flow of electricity on its system, said Edison International CEO Ted Craver.

“We are certainly big supporters of electric transportation,” Craver said.

He added: “That electric car isn’t just going to stay at home. It’s going to go other places. It’s going to need to get charged in other places. And I think our ability to provide that glue for all those things that are going to plug into that network is really how we see our core business.”

Shifting Landscape
Some utilities are more amendable to the shifting landscape than others. Last year, Pinnacle West Capital Corp.’s Arizona Public Service raised the ire of its customers and the solar industry by tacking on a monthly fee of about $5 for residents with solar systems. Adding fixed connection charges or additional fees to such customers may cause more of them to defect, said Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

“Utilities should look at Elon as a brilliant entrepreneur and innovator who is helping create the new electricity industry and betting against him hasn’t worked so well,” Lovins said. “I would look at ways to benefit from what he is bringing to the market.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the description of Tesla’s charging stations.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Chediak in San Francisco at mchediak@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net Will Wade, Steven Frank
More News: Environment, Leaders, Energy Markets, Municipal Bonds, Transportation, Sustainability

Companies Unplug From the Electric Grid, Delivering a Jolt to Utilities

BUSINESSSeptember 17, 2013, 11:05 p.m. ET

Companies Unplug From the Electric Grid, Delivering a Jolt to Utilities

By REBECCA SMITH and CASSANDRA SWEET CONNECT

Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

At Kroger’s food-distribution center in Compton, Calif., a tank system converts organic waste into biogas to produce electricity used by the facility

On a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River, two big wind turbines crank out electricity for Kroger Co.’s Turkey Hill Dairy in rural Lancaster County, Pa., allowing it to save 25% on its power bill for the past two years.

Across the country, at a big food-distribution center Kroger also owns in Compton, Calif., a tank system installed this year uses bacteria to convert 150 tons a day of damaged produce, bread and other organic waste into a biogas that is burned on site to produce 20% of the electricity the facility uses.

These two projects, plus the electric output of solar panels at four Kroger grocery stores, and some energy-conservation efforts are saving the Cincinnati-based grocery chain $160 million a year on electricity, said Denis George, its energy manager. That is a lot of money that isn’t going into the pockets of utilities.

From big-box retailers to high-tech manufacturers, more companies across the country are producing their own power. Since 2006, the number of electricity-generation units at commercial and industrial sites has more than quadrupled to roughly 40,000 from about 10,000, according to federal statistics.

Experts say the trend is gaining momentum, spurred by falling prices for solar panels and natural gas, as well as a fear that power outages caused by major storms will become more common.

Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

Organic waste

“The battle cry is Hurricane Sandy,” said Rick Fioravanti, vice president of energy-storage technology at DNV Kema, a Netherlands-based consulting company.

The growing number of companies that are at least partly energy self-sufficient is sending a shudder through the utility industry, threatening its revenues and growth prospects, according to a report earlier this year by the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for investor-owned electric companies.

State and federal regulators say they are worried that utilities could end up with fewer customers to pay for costly transmission lines and power plants.

Utility executives, meanwhile, are asking themselves a disquieting question: “Am I going to just sit here and take it and ultimately be a caretaker of a museum, or am I going to be part of that business” that’s emerging, said Nick Akins, chief executive of American Electric Power Co., a big Ohio-based utility. AEP is considering helping its customers install their own generating facilities.

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On-site generation still accounts for less than 5% of U.S. electricity production. But it is peeling off some of the bulk sales that utilities find especially profitable. And some of the companies getting into the business think it is approaching a tipping point called “grid parity,” at which point power would be as cheap to make as to buy from a utility.

Since 2007, when the first solar arrays went up on its store roofs in California, the installed costs of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s solar systems have dropped from $6 or $8 per watt of capacity to about $3.50 per watt, said David Ozment, the company’s senior director of energy management. He said he expects the retailer to be paying as little for solar power as utility power “in less than three years,” opening the floodgates to solar expansion.

Wal-Mart produces about 4% of the electricity it uses but intends to make 20% by 2020, taking advantage of idle acreage on thousands of store rooftops.

On-site generation isn’t a new idea. It existed before the electric grid—the interconnected system of power plants, substations and transmission lines that ferry power thousands of miles—was stitched together beginning in the 1920s.

But for most of the past 50 years, the practice was associated mostly with remote locations like Alaska fish canneries or industrial facilities like oil refineries that generated lots of waste heat that could be harnessed for power production.

Almost overnight, that niche market has gone decidedly mainstream. Six years ago, Google Inc. attracted attention by installing big solar arrays atop its Silicon Valley complex in California. Other tech companies followed suit, worried about ensuring power supplies for energy-hungry server farms and achieving sustainability objectives.

Apple Inc. now gets 16% of its electricity from solar panels and fuel cells that run on biogas. Apple’s data center in Maiden, N.C., makes all the power it consumes, a company spokeswoman said.

BMW AG’s assembly plant in South Carolina, which made 300,000 vehicles last year, gets half its electricity from an on-site energy center that burns methane piped to it from a nearby garbage dump. Drugstore chain Walgreen Co., which has solar panels at 155 stores, plans to install them at 200 more.

Falling equipment prices make on-site generation increasingly attractive. From 2002 to 2012, the cost of installed solar systems fell by half, according to an August report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Companies also have the option of leasing big solar systems, rather than incurring the capital cost of buying them.

Many “clean energy” projects also qualify for federal and state subsidies. In the case of solar installations, there is a 30% federal tax credit, which is set to drop to 10% in 2017. Government officials say a shift to greener energy resources is good since it reduces the output from coal-fueled power plants, which produce about 40% of the nation’s electricity and are the most polluting.

But analysts say the importance of subsidies has been waning, overshadowed by steep declines in the cost of power-generating equipment. For example, the cost of solar modules—the biggest single component in a rooftop solar system—has dropped about 80% in the past four years, to about 65 cents a watt from about $4 a watt, said Galen Barbose, a senior researcher at the lab.

Companies also are turning to wind turbines and technologies like fuel cells, batteries, small natural-gas turbines and reciprocating engines, which are natural-gas-fueled cousins of the auto’s internal combustion engine.

Engineering and technology company SAIC Inc. is installing enough generating capacity at a data center outside New York to meet the center’s core needs, with batteries for backup power. The system uses reciprocating engines burning natural gas, an option considered reliable in storms because gas pipelines are buried.

A report released by the White House in August estimated that power outages caused by bad weather cost the U.S. economy $18 billion to $52 billion a year in lost productivity from 2003 to 2012.

Demand for fuel cells in the U.S. is coming primarily from telecom companies, hotels and universities, said David Wright, CEO of ClearEdge Power Inc., a manufacturer in Hillsboro, Ore. Many buyers want reliable on-site generation as a hedge against storm-related outages.

By next year, Verizon Communications Inc. plans to install $100 million worth of fuel cells from ClearEdge and Bloom Energy, as well as solar panels, at 19 data centers and other facilities in seven states, including New York and New Jersey.

Some traditional utility companies are edging into the on-site generation business.

Edison International, which owns big utility Southern California Edison, recently bought a Chicago-based developer of rooftop solar projects, SoCore Energy LLC, and it is an investor in solar-finance company Clean Power Finance.

As power production becomes more decentralized, “I want to make sure the company is deeply involved,” said Edison CEO Ted Craver.

Write to Rebecca Smith at rebecca.smith@wsj.com and Cassandra Sweet at cassandra.sweet@dowjones.com

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