Special Report: Is the Tesla Battery a Threat to Berkshire Hathaway?

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

Elon Musk’s recent announcement of Tesla’s new home and industry battery business, which will enable the storage of solar and wind energy, would seem to directly threaten Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s role as one of the world’s largest energy producers.

But not so fast.

Let’s Look at the Big Picture

First, Tesla’s leading-edge automobiles have done a lot to popularize plug-in electric vehicles. These vehicles draw their power primarily from electric utilities, and as the technology takes hold with more mainstream automobile producers, such as Toyota, GM, and Ford, the total demand for electric power will skyrocket. Sure, some of the power may come from home-based electric generation through solar panels, but the total demand for electric power will rise as consumers switch from gas and diesel powered vehicles.

Secondly, for home and industry battery applications, Berkshire may benefit in multiple ways. Its minority ownership in Chinese battery maker BYD Co Ltd could prove a very wise investment, as the company adds 6 gigawatts per year of battery production capability over the next 3 years.

The End of the Utility?

Will solar panels linked to a Tesla Powerwall mean that the centralized distribution offered by utilities will be irrelevant? Maybe for someone living in the backwoods, or far out in the desert, but not for anyone still hooked up to the grid.

Net metering, which feeds excess electricity consumers produce back into the grid, and creates a billing mechanism that credits consumers, makes the batteries irrelevant, as they produce no cost-saving or other advantage.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s CEO Greg Abel thinks that Tesla’s storage technology would have to drop greatly in price for it to be applicable to BHE’s transmission business.

Abel called the technology, “not game-changing, and it’s because of the cost structure,” during a panel discussion put on by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. “Is there an opportunity to now implement that into our systems, into our transmission and distribution systems? Absolutely. And is it completely cost-effective, no. It’s got to get cheaper.”

Don’t Forget Duracell

Berkshire’s acquisition of P&G’s Duracell unit, may shake things up if it can get Duracell to transition from the alkaline battery business to newer battery technologies, the company might be in just the right place to market products similar to Tesla. It certainly has the resources to do it, as the P&G deal includes $1.8 billion in cash.

Lastly, large-scale battery storage is just what Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s solar and wind farms need, be it the 550-megawatt photovoltaic Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, California, or the just announced 400-megawatt Grande Prairie Wind Farm in Holt County, Nebraska. The ability to store energy for the times that the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing is just what utilities need to fully pull away from fossil fuel based energy generation.

In summary, new home and industry storage battery technology will give Berkshire Hathaway new competition for its existing companies, but it will also bring new opportunities.

(This article contains updated information)

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.