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March 30, 2015: Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and celebrity of western nerdom, sent out a teaser Tweet:

“Major new Tesla product line — not a car — will be unveiled at our Hawthorne Design Studio on Thurs., 8 p.m., April 30.”

So began a series of Twitter messages stamped with the sign #TeslaNewProductGuesses. Bloggers put forth their best speculations: a salad spinner, a hoverboard, a metal T-Rex?

When the reporters gathered for the drop, Musk strode upon the stage wrapped in a steel-colored blazer and matte black slacks. He grabbed a PowerPoint clicker and proceeded to talk about how to “fundamentally change the way the world uses energy.”

April 30, 2015 is not the first time Elon Musk has announced plans to change the world. PayPal (which he co-founded) revolutionized online digital payments; SpaceX became the first privately-owned company to ship cargo to the International Space Station via its own in-house rockets; SolarCity littered photovoltaic solar panels all over Southern California; Tesla Motors unveiled the sexy side of all-electric cars.

This time is different. Musk announced the debut of the Tesla PowerWall and PowerPack, residential and commercial lithium-ion battery packs, and in doing so targeted the consumption of one-third of all fossil fuels in the United States.

Approximately 33 percent of all fossil fuels used in America, mostly coal and natural gas, are fed into power generation plants. Because of drastic swings in power usage by location, intensity and frequency, the national electric grid is intrinsically inefficient.

But most modern batteries “suck,” as Musk so eloquently put it. He says there is always some sort of snag: charge time, capacity, cycle lifespan, physical size, etc. There is no one-size-fits-all battery and therefore nothing to challenge the dominance of the grid.

Or at least, there wasn’t. Now, Tesla has partnered with regional businesses like Treehouse, Green Mountain Power, Amazon, Target and SolarCity to distribute its lithium-ion batteries to homeowners and CEOs alike.

Among the many distribution and manufacturing partners is SolarCity, a co-venture of Elon Musk and CEO Lyndon Rive. SolarCity is a leading nationwide installer of residential photovoltaic solar panel systems. It works like so: Customers can either purchase systems upfront or sign up for 20-year leases. Average customers can expect to save $20,000 – $30,000 over the first 20 years of the system.

But there is a catch. Without energy storage, solar-powered homes are still reliant on traditional power providers. They remain connected to the grid and must endure the inevitable blackouts, price hikes and time-use rates.

The 10-kilowatt Tesla PowerPack offers a way out. Homeowners can leverage the battery one of three ways:

  • Homeowners can store solar renewable energy during the day for grid-free use at night. Any unused energy can be resold to the grid under net-metering laws.
  • Rural residents can install solar systems and ditch the grid. At $3,500 for a 10-kilowatt battery after government rebates, the PowerWall is much cheaper than an analogous diesel- or natural gas-powered backup generator.
  • Alternatively, homeowners without solar power can just store electricity at night to take advantage of time-use rates. Some may be eligible for utility incentives for renewable energy.

 

How did Tesla Motors manage to produce such a battery when others have failed?

Most of those reasons are in Reno, Nevada, where Tesla is currently constructing a $5 billion “gigafactory” of lithium-ion battery production. Tesla essentially borrowed technology from its gigafactory and wrapped it in different packaging.

People believe in Musk’s vision. Tesla’s stock price has surged since the announcement. Traditional utility companies are holding hands and whispering Hail Mary’s, since the PowerPack will allow 9-5 wholesale customers like Wal-Mart to escape time-use rates and switch to solar power. As long as their lithium is appropriately recycled, Tesla’s new batteries could reduce coal mining and oil fracking, ease greenhouse gas and atmospheric pollutant emissions, shatter utility monopolies and perhaps, just perhaps, fundamentally change the way the world uses energy.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Really curious to see how this plays out. Revolutionary battery technology always seems to be 5 to 10 years away because there are many non-trivial technical hurdles to overcome. With one of the world’s greatest innovators working on the problem, it seems more likely that a real solution is on the horizon.

    • Agreed. Lots of money behind it too, which tends to speed up the innovation process… I’m still a bit skeptical, but optimistic.

      I guess we’ll see.

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