Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), made an interesting comment about utilities at last month's North American International Auto Show. Essentially, he told reporters electric cars will keep electric companies from going extinct even as more and more customers opt for distributed power options such as rooftop solar. That's a bold statement at a turbulent time in the power market.
Juicing up the auto
All electric cars, including Tesla's vehicles, need a reliable power source to keep their batteries topped off. More importantly, the demand for electricity from autos is new demand for utilities that didn't exist before, ultimately displacing demand for gasoline. And that's what Musk is talking about.
At the Auto Show he explained: "The future for utilities is actually not a bad future; it's pretty good. As we transition to electric transport, we're going to see a significant increase in the demand for electricity." Now you have to take that with a grain of salt because the CEO has a vested interest in electric autos and a flare for publicity. But if he's correct, the fears of customers shifting off the grid thanks to renewables and the concerns over distributed power might, indeed, be at least somewhat misplaced.
Getting to the party early
While the number of electric cars is relatively small today, with the California Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative estimating just 300,000 or so have been sold in the United States since 2011, some early movers at the utility level seem to agree with Musk's vision. For example, NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG), something of a maverick in the utility space, has been investing in charging stations across 10 markets, including California, Washington, D.C., Georgia, and Texas.
It plans to expand its reach to 25 markets over the next two years. The company noted recently it saw "a 135 percent increase in station uses in the last three months of 2014 over the previous three months." So there clearly appears to be demand for what it claims is the largest electric vehicle charging network in the nation.
While NRG isn't the only company looking to get into this space, it's taking an aggressive approach. Although this is still a tiny slice of what the company does, keep an eye on it. If Musk is even close to correct, NRG could lead the pack in an important new industry segment. That said, if Musk is wrong, NRG could be left trying to unload a costly dalliance.
A fly in the ointment?
One thing to monitor is auto owners' willingness to pay for power. For example, NRG's California charging stations were built as part of a settlement pertaining to a predecessor company overcharging its customers. They are currently free. Anyone will charge their car if it costs them nothing. The question is whether customers will pay once the free juice ends. On that front, there's no hard evidence just yet.
For example, according to Green Car Reports, a charging station at a Marriott hotel in California, the state with the most electric autos, generated roughly $10,000 in revenue for its owner, Evoasis, after it started charging for charging. But that was "based on a total of 2,900 charging sessions over 18 months."
Ten grand over a year and a half of operation isn't much revenue when you consider that Navigant Research estimates installing a charging station can cost as much as $60,000--not including the cost of the actual machinery. That translates to a payback period of nine years or more, which doesn't sound like such a great investment. .
Musk's electric-vehicle vision is a good reason to rethink the fear of a dying electric industry. However, it's still not clear electric vehicles will save the day. NRG is betting they will, and it's worth watching the company's success as it builds out an industry-leading charging network. But this move comes with notable risks.