When Elon Musk introduced the Tesla Powerwall home battery system late last month, he invited a small audience of several hundred friends, colleagues and media members to an old Los Angeles factory. Among them was Jason Ballard, a quiet and increasingly powerful figure in the home energy market.
Ballard helped found TreeHouse, a sustainable home improvement store with one location in Austin, Texas, three years ago. Today, he works as its CEO and president, and is preparing for another round of capital investment aimed at expansion, in large thanks to Musk and the Powerwall.
Musk selected TreeHouse as the lone retail outlet in the country to sell the Powerwall at its launch later this summer. The home battery system is neither cheap — though at $3,500, its base price is about a quarter of what was initially projected — nor small — mount it on the wall like a really big painting — but it could start to change how we consume energy.
Ballard talked with IndustryWeek from the road, not long after the big announcement.
IndustryWeek: How in the world did a relatively small home improvement store with one location land this new product from Tesla?
Jason Ballard: During the three years we’ve been open, we’ve sort of built a reputation for helping new products in the home improvement space come to fruition — we’re one of the top-selling locations in the country for Nest smart home products — and we hire a really high-caliber employee and then train the junk out of them. That enables us to sell these new and sometimes complex products. I’ve been watching the battery evolution for a while, because we’re already big into home solar systems, and when I started catching rumors that Tesla might enter into that space, I tried immediately to get in contact.
A contact at Nest had some contacts over at Tesla and connected me, and we started negotiations with Tesla. They sort of had the same questions you do: Why would we even bother selling to you? But once they started to get the idea of our bigger vision, even though they’re a much bigger company than we are, they saw we might be kindred spirits, and they could at least remember what it was like to be the little guy sort of up against a lot of established industry players. I think with that sort of mission synergy and brand alignment, they sort of took a bet on us, to be perfectly honest, and we’re really excited and we’re going to sell the junk out of those batteries.
IW: What was the timeline like? A few months? A year?
JB: I’d been pursuing the relationship for well over a year. Right around the holidays was when we just said, ‘OK, there’s a synergy here. Let’s swap paperwork and start to work together.’
IW: This technology is so new and so unknown. How do you go about selling it to people who are probably either already all in or totally in the dark?
JB: What we’re going to do is start by reaching out to all of our solar customers — we have several hundred — and setting up a landing page on our website where there will be a waiting list. That will give us a sense, as the time arrives, of what our initial order will have to be. I have a feeling it will be fairly robust. The day after the announcement, I woke up and my inbox was already full, and people were calling the store and emailing the store, wanting to order one.
IW: Do you have any idea about the numbers, at least during the first few months?
JB: The demand is going to be quite robust. Jaws dropped on the price after it got out into the media. Everybody was sort of throwing around the $13,000 number, and it turns out to be $3,500. It’s an order of magnitude cheaper than current battery systems. Just in Austin, I expect we can sell thousands. I don’t see why not. There’s no reason to think every single home shouldn’t have one of these.
IW: Any word about the actual production of the Powerwall units?
JB: They’re still figuring out the manufacturing process. It’s interesting, because the process they’re setting up will be temporary, used only until the Gigafactory is ready.
IW: Austin is such a different kind of city — big metropolis that still feels small, Keep Austin Weird, all that — that it seems like a pretty good place for Tesla to start with a product like this.
JB: I’m sure you’re familiar with what sociologists call the adoption curve, about innovators, early adopters, laggards. Austin is definitely an innovator and early adopter city. I think home batteries are going to become normal, and faster than people realize. This is the beginning of a new way to power our homes, and I think people will begin to see the grid for what it is: We don’t need multi-billion dollar infrastructure supporting billion dollar power plants. Once you begin to make solar and wind and battery storage economically viable, this is the beginning of a new sort of way of powering our homes. I don’t want to be too hyperbolic, but by 2040 or 2050, not just in Austin and Portland and Seattle and Silicon Valley, it’ll be very normal for your home to not have a power bill.
IW: Being the only American outlet to sell this, at least at the launch, should help TreeHouse’s bottom line and possible expansion, right?
JB: The timing for this is actually pretty unbelievable. Tesla didn’t do it for us, but I’m actually in the middle of raising another round of capital for growth, and I got a number of emails from potential investors the morning after the announcement. We are planning both a regional and a national expansion. Before the launch, we proved the concept, we proved the store can make money, we proved we can get access to really exciting products and materials and technology. For Tesla to announce the partnership right in the middle of all this, I’m walking into board meetings with a big smile on my face.
We’re having a pinch-me moment.