Is Tesla’s Popularity Stretching the Company’s Battery Supplies Too Far?
Photo Credit: Jonathan Drake
High-profile battery deployments have made Tesla famous. But they’re also affecting the company’s supply chain.
by Jason Deign
October 03, 2017
A change in supply chain partners has fueled concerns that Tesla may be struggling to meet stationary energy-storage delivery commitments.
Last week, the Nikkei Asian Review reported that Tesla had turned to Samsung SDI, instead of its usual cell supplier Panasonic, to provide the batteries needed for its most high-profile project to date, a 100-megawatt, 129-megawatt-hour battery plant in South Australia.
“The decision to use Samsung SDI is a blow to Panasonic, which has its hands full with orders for electric-vehicle batteries,” said Nikkei Asian Review.
“To meet a self-imposed deadline of 100 days, Tesla turned to the South Korean company since it could swiftly supply the cells. Tesla is importing the cells to the U.S. for final assembly before sending them to Australia -- apparently taking the promotional benefits over profit," the article states.
Under a deal struck by Tesla boss Elon Musk, if Tesla does not complete the South Australian project within 100 days of the grid-connection agreement, then Australia gets it for free.
The clock officially began ticking on Friday, Sept. 29, when a grid connection agreement was inked with transmission company Electranet.
At the same time, Tesla seized upon a PR opportunity to pack what Bloomberg said were “hundreds” of batteries off to Puerto Rico in the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Maria.
One aerial photo of the destruction showed a sign that said “SEND TESLA,” spelled out with the debris from a hurricane-smashed home.
Responding to these high-profile opportunities has undoubtedly helped Tesla further increase its standing as the most famous energy storage brand on earth. But it has also put intense pressure on Tesla’s supply chain, many experts believe.
The change in suppliers for the South Australian project “would point to a supply issue of some kind,” an Australian energy insider told GTM.
“If the [Tesla] Gigafactory is focused on the South Australia 100-megawatt battery [plant], that might have consequences for other products," the source said. "The feeling locally is that this would push the cost of the project up significantly.”
Some observers also believe a supply bottleneck might force Tesla to prioritize headline-grabbing project deliveries over other orders.
According to Tesla, orders are fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis, and each customer is given an estimated delivery or installation time when they place their order. New Powerwall orders will not be fulfilled until the first quarter of next year, though.
And elsewhere there are signs that rank-and-file Powerwall customers are facing long delivery delays.
Speaking in a podcast with Australia’s RenewEconomy last month, Australian solar industry veteran Nigel Morris said: “There are a lot of people who have placed orders for Powerwall 2s. They aren’t available at the moment. There’s no stock coming into the country.”
“Due to limited shipments, Tesla is prioritizing deliveries to preferred partners and high-profile contracts and markets," said Ravi Manghani, energy storage director at GTM Research. "Tesla is really pushing to establish dominance in Australia, for instance.”
It may be doing so at the expense of other markets, he said. In the U.S., meanwhile, some solar installers have expressed concern that Tesla may face a conflict with independent channel partners after having taken over SolarCity.
“The Powerwall is a cool product. There is a lot of interest in it. But the fact that it’s being installed by SolarCity is a classic case of channel conflict," said Barry Cinnamon, CEO of San Francisco-based Spice Solar.
“It makes rational business sense [for Tesla] to divert inventory to their own installation company so they can make more revenue," he said.
Installers, including Spice Solar, which does not stock Powerwalls, owes Tesla a debt of gratitude for having popularized energy storage, he said. But, Cinnamon added: “I’m aware of a lot of contractors who signed up to sell it and a lot who are still waiting for equipment.”
Perhaps because of looming product shortages, Tesla appears to be raising the bar for independent contractors wanting to install its Powerwalls. Anecdotally, some installers claim to have been stonewalled by Tesla, forcing them to choose alternative battery suppliers.
Analysts were not able to confirm this. But Manghani has heard there are currently just "a handful" of certified electrical contractors that Tesla will allow to install these systems.
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