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Home battery makers get a boost after Hurricane Maria

  • Makers of home batteries have ramped up manufacturing in response to the humanitarian disaster at a scale that could have an impact far away from Puerto Rico's storm-battered shores, according to the CEO of Sunnova.
  • Increased adoption of home battery systems could be good for the resilience of the electric infrastructure on islands prone to hurricanes.
  • Only 17 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million residents have access to electricity as of Friday, according to FEMA.
A customer inspects a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall unit inside a home.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A customer inspects a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall unit inside a home.

The CEO of Puerto Rico's largest solar provider said the hurricane that struck the island last month accelerated the timeline for home batteries by as much as a year and a half.

Makers of home batteries have ramped up manufacturing in response to the humanitarian disaster at such a scale that it could have an impact far away from Puerto Rico's storm-battered shores, according to John Berger, CEO of Houston-based Sunnova.

"Global battery makers like Tesla were completely focused on the electric vehicle market," Berger said. "[Hurricane] Maria has changed that."

Tesla, which has reportedly shipped hundreds of its Powerwall home battery systems to the island, did not respond to a request for comment.

Sunnova is the second-largest energy provider in Puerto Rico behind the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, according to Berger, accounting for about 1.5 percent of electric generation on the island. Wind energy also accounts for a substantial portion of Puerto Rico's renewable energy portfolio, according to government data.

Production of home batteries powered by renewable energy sources had already been ramping up, particularly over the last three years as companies such as Tesla, Samsung and LG unveiled new projects.

Tesla announced its Powerwall project in 2015. The following year, Samsung established a joint venture with China-based Sungrow. LG launched its residential battery system in April.

After big storms, home batteries tend to see a short-term spike in interest, according to Ravi Manghani, the director of energy storage at GTM Research.

"It will lead to increased action for storage, and action for Puerto Rico, and other island states, too," he said. But Manghani thinks that long-term changes in the home battery market are more likely to be caused by the underlying economics of battery storage than by any single event.

Manghani estimates that home batteries will be competitive with traditional sources of energy on islands such as Puerto Rico in the next five years, and possibly as early as the next two. The cost of such systems has fallen as much as 80 percent over the last eight years, he said.

Increased adoption of home battery systems could be good for the resilience of the electric infrastructure on islands prone to hurricanes.

Berger said that a preliminary review suggested the "vast majority" of Sunnova's solar systems on Puerto Rico were still functioning or had minimal damage, although they were still assessing the damage.

"It's very clear that if we had batteries on all of our customers, then all of our customers would have electricity, with very few exceptions," Berger said.

Only 17 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million residents had access to electricity as of Friday, according to FEMA.

Berger, whose company employs 800 people directly and indirectly in Puerto Rico, said he's working with Gov. Ricardo Rossello to help restore electricity and plan for the island's future. Given the right regulatory structure, Berger said, he is willing to invest up to $1 billion on the island.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Correction: This story was revised to delete an incorrect number for Sunnova's solar systems on Puerto Rico.