Imagine a world in which all our energy needs comes from clean, renewable sources. Every building could be covered and powered by solar panels. Transportation could be provided by electric vehicles. Clean and free electricity provided by sun and wind could be used in real time and stored in batteries for later use. Fossil fuels could be regulated to the fuel of last resort. It may not be the stuff of science fiction any longer. If Tesla CEO Elon Musk has his way, this is the future we are headed towards.
Solar and wind energy have long been attractive renewable energy sources. Once the photovoltaic panels and wind turbines are manufactured, they can create many years of electricity with zero harmful emissions and little if any maintenance. In recent years the cost of solar has plummeted, leaving it on par with fossil fuels. The problem however has been in the less than constant ability of renewables to create electricity. Solar cannot produce as much electricity in inclement weather or any at night. Wind is intermittent. Also, unlike more conventional fossil fuel burning power plants, capacity cannot always be increased during peak periods of need.
In order for solar and wind-generated power to be more than energy grid add-ons, they need to have a way to store their energy for use during off-peak or low production periods. Batteries are the best way to store energy during periods of peak production to be used later. However, no major company has offered an easily-scalable battery storage solution to meet these needs - until now. Tesla Motors, maker of the Model S supercar and soon to be launched Model X, announced its Powerwall home electricity storage solution under the Tesla Energy brand this week. There will be two available units of 7 kilowatt-hour and 10kwh capacity offered at $3,000 and $3,500 respectively. They can also be stacked for homeowners who wish to store more energy.
So as not to leave commercial customers out in the dark, Tesla Energy will also offer the Powerpack. This 100 kwh unit is, according to Musk, "infinitely scalable" and can be clustered to meet any project size. Quiet pilot programs have been carried out over the last year with businesses such as Walmart. Tesla Energy claims that other large retailers have signed on as well. This would also make intermittently generated energy such as solar and wind more viable sources to provide reliable electricity 24 hours a day for municipal utilities. Conceivably, it could also be used in conjunction with existing fossil fuel burning power plants, allowing them to operate at a lower, but steadier, production level and storing their nighttime overcapacity for use during daytime peak periods. This could theoretically lower overall emissions from existing plants. If the same utility decided to add renewable power to its grid to meet increased demand at a later date, they could relocate that Tesla-provided energy storage to the new plant.
To provide the batteries for these new products, and future electric vehicles, Tesla has already broken ground on their Gigafactory in Nevada. It is planned to begin production in 2017 and produce as much as 35 gigawatt-hours of electric storage capacity annually by 2020. To put that in perspective, one gigawatt is equivalent to one million kilowatts. Tesla has hinted that this may just one of several gigafactories in its future. It is also worth noting that one of Elon Musk's other companies is Solar City. Solar City claims to be America's largest solar provider with more than 6,000 employees. All these companies will work in concert to complement each other and bring clean energy to the masses.
*Disclosure: The author is an alternative energy enthusiast who has no commercial or professional interest or relationship with any of the companies listed in this article.