Tesla Sees ‘Huge’ Battery Market in Blackout-Ridden South Africa

Tesla Motors Inc.’s chief technology officer said South Africa could be a “huge market” for battery storage as rolling blackouts cut power in the continent’s most-industrialized economy.

The country has “such a mismatch between demand and supply,” J.B. Straubel, Tesla CTO and co-founder, said Monday at a U.S. Energy Information Administration energy conference in Washington. “South Africa actually has an electric grid that has huge implications for storage.”

State-owned electric company Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., which provides about 95 percent of the country’s power, delayed investing in new generation capacity and is struggling to maintain its existing fleet of power stations.

The utility regularly rotates controlled blackouts in areas for four hours to keep the national grid from collapse, stifling factory production and limiting a recovery in the economy.

South Africa is “a huge market for storage, where we can both effect resiliency, as well as backup, as well as helping expand the infrastructure to do more,” Straubel said.

Founded in 2003, Tesla -- the smallest and youngest publicly held U.S. automaker -- is investing heavily in growth as it prepares to begin selling the Model X, a cross-over SUV, this summer. Palo Alto, California-based Tesla is increasing production, building its battery factory east of Reno, Nevada, and diversifying beyond cars, with a suite of battery products for homes, businesses and utilities.

Falling Costs

Tesla is shipping its Powerwall battery system at a retail price of $350 per kilowatt-hour, Straubel said. That may fall to $100 to $150 by the end of the decade as the costs of manufacturing the batteries decline, just as they have in the solar market, he said.

The batteries would remain cost prohibitive to most South Africans, where gross domestic product per capita is $6,483 versus $54,597 in the U.S., according to International Monetary Fund statistics.

Generation from the country’s growing renewable energy sources can depend on weather conditions.

South Africa’s program for independent power producers of renewable generation including photovoltaic, wind and hydro has procured over 6,000 megawatts through four bidding rounds since 2011, adding 193 billion rand ($15.5 billion) of investment in the sector.