The Spark

Tesla batteries: A game changer for the grid

Generators vs. batteries

Tesla's splashy new home-battery product launch has so far garnered mixed reviews. Make no mistake, however: America's power grid has officially been put on notice.

Skeptics argue the $3,000 batteries are too expensive and unrealistic for most households. Some even dismiss the entire product launch as founder Elon Musk's effort to distract investors and the public from the electric car marker's core product sales.

It's "not really an economical solution for backup power," said Aaron Jadgfeld, CEO of generator giant Generac, on "Closing Bell" Friday.

Indeed, Tesla's home battery—or "storage," in industry lingo—would run $10,000 for just four to eight hours of power in case of an outage, Jadgfeld said. His Generac generators, meanwhile, could offer a household "weeks" of electricity power if they are powered by natural gas.

Others see it differently—and maintain that Tesla's technology is in fact a game changer.

Take Rick Harrison, the well-known face of the cable television series "Pawn Stars," owner of a successful pawn shop in Las Vegas and other business ventures.

Harrison has a sprawling ranch in Oregon that is "off the grid," he explained to "Closing Bell," and powered by water, solar, and a costly and time-consuming array of batteries.

For people like Harrison, Tesla's offering is compelling not just on a pure cost basis but also for the convenience it potentially offers. "When you have racks and racks of batteries that you have to unscrew and check acid and gravity all the time," it's a major headache, he said.

When it comes to managing those 2,000 pounds of batteries, Tesla's technology "would make it so much less of a nightmare," he said.

It's one reason Harrison—a one-time Tesla skeptic—has moderated his view on the electric-car maker's longer-term investment potential. "I think the product they [just] came out with is absolutely amazing," he said.

That view was echoed by the biographer and founder of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson.

"I think [these] batteries are the next big game changer," Isaacson told CNBC Friday, "because that's what we truly need if we're going to get a 'smart' grid."

Isaacson, who had just traveled to his New Orleans hometown and witnessed storm-caused power-outages the prior week, said he's "not sure which of these [technologies] is going to be the best, but it's going to be a great field."

He added that it's a field "unlike social media" where the barriers to entry are relatively high, which would favor incumbent players like Tesla.

For the time being, backup power is cheapest and most accessible in the generator form that Generac and its rivals champion.

For those who desire—and can afford—an "off-the-grid" lifestyle, however, Tesla's technology could be more attractive. Over time, lower cost, competition, and network effects from a larger number of users may well increase the number of households switching to a solar-and-storage type of model Tesla is laying out.

As Nick Akins, the chief executive of utility giant American Electric Power, told "Closing Bell": "Distributed generation, solar, and renewables are changing the way the grid operates." The utility is investing in "two-way flow" as more and more users are likely to demand it over the years.

This innovation may also help alleviate the burden of America's aging and overloaded power grid. "If this is helping consumers out there understand the options for them," then Tesla's announcement could also be a game changer in terms of raising awareness, said Generac's Jagdfeld.

"The grid continues to age and to fail, [and] the duration of power outages is longer today than it was 10 years ago," he said.