Will Elon Musk Really Get us Off the Grid?

Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and the electric car company Tesla, among other entrepreneurial ventures, has promised to change the way our homes and energy work around the world. At least that part of the world that could pay for the Powerwall, his sleek wall mounted battery which looks like an Apple computer under a magnifying glass.

Very much like Apple 30 years ago, Powerwall doesn't introduce some new ground-breaking invention but it brings usability and cool look at a fairly reasonable price for something that until now was expensive and "sucked", in Musk's words. The price of its main version is $3,500 and is about a quarter of the price of the Apple II computer that was launched in 1976 (taking inflation into account). It can be put almost anywhere in the house and its installation promises to be easy and almost meeting the plug-and-play standard that we are now used to expect from any IT device. So, wherever the Powerwall is taking us, it might take is there much faster than the personal computer brought us where we are now.

Powerwall keeps sending tremors of excitement across the globe with the common leitmotif about how we would all get off the grid, bankrupt the nasty power companies and the utilities that are overcharging us for dirty electricity.

Very much like personal computers at the dawn of their existence, off-grid homes are today still seen as an expensive toy for geeks, hobbyists and wealthy enthusiasts. Many are expecting that Musk's sleek battery combined with solar panels will change that and the utilities liberation day is now on the horizon.

The future of homes and energy supply however might be more complicated. We will get energy from many sources and in many ways. And we will deliver it to our final use -- light, heating, moving -- via different mediums. Electricity will be the main one and its use will be growing. But not all energy will be sunrays converted into electrons that would need the new battery.

Power storage is nothing new. Nowadays pump hydroelectric storage comprises 99 percent of the power storage facilities in the world. In the U.S. it could store approximately 2 percent of the generated electricity, in Europe -- 5 percent and in Japan -- 10 percent. Other storage technologies are also being developed.

We also convert a large quantity of waste into energy and we will continue to develop this trend and make it more sustainable. We use solar energy for direct water and space heating without going through generation of electricity. This use will also grow and evolve. Onshore and offshore wind generation will grow and get stronger and stronger. We will continue to use and expand hydro energy. And we could be confident that in the years to come we would see many breakthroughs in the field of clean energy generation and storage, not least because the research and development train is moving now fast and is already well advanced.

In the much more complex future world of energy however Musk's battery, and its clones and competitors, will play a critical role in accelerating the transformation of our homes from simple energy consumers into much more active players in the energy system. This role will be more intriguing than the ugly fashionable word "prosumer" (producer plus consumer) refers to.

Our homes will integrate a variety of energy generation, storage, consumption and management solutions. And in most cases the buildings will not get off the grid but will change the existing grid and create new grids.

We will store electricity not just in order to use it in our isolated home when the sun is not shining but for a number of other reasons. Musk mentioned one of them, the battery will be handy if there are blackouts. Batteries will also help balancing the system by releasing into the grid stored electricity at time of higher demand. (Of course that would be only possible if you don't cut yourself off the grid.) Batteries will help you trade electricity, by allowing you to buy it when the price is low and sell it when the price goes up. Decentralised power storage might open the ground for decentralised power trading (much in the way many people trade stocks on their laptops).

We can also expect a surge in new wave of community and island power systems. Nowadays smaller islands, which do not have sufficient territory and population to build conventional power supply systems, find it difficult to secure their power needs. They use dirty and expensive diesel or heavy oil for power generation. Cheap solar panels and wind power systems combined with batteries and smart energy IT solutions will make it possible for even very small islands to have clean, affordable and secure electricity supply.

Similarly we will start thinking of new built communities independently from the available or future centralised energy infrastructure. Architects and urban developers will be much more free in planning and building new towns and villages. Even our concept for a town might change.

And, while the battery looks like an expensive toy for rich societies, it might bring huge changes to the poorest part of the world. Currently more than a billion people do not have access to electricity and the access of another billion is unreliable. There are 600 million people only in Sub Sahara Africa, who are not connected to the grid. This number is not expected to decline but to grow to 700 million in 2030.

The life of many of these people is being transformed by the mobile phone and now also by the growing number of cheap solar lights. The ability to build a modern living community anywhere will be hugely helped by availability of devices that could store more power than what you need in order to keep a small led light on after dusk.

Power generation and sharing communities could be built and expanded. Outside lighting, computers, refrigerators, television sets and radios could be added and schools connected to high quality free MOOCs (massive open online courses) developed, and freely available, by the best universities in the world.

All this is perfectly possible with current available technologies. But as we know there is a huge difference between developed technologies and easy to use affordable products. Especially when they enter the cool "must have" status. As Musk's battery has high chance to do.

While Musk was trying hard to sell his battery and solar products, by inspiring the off-grid imagination of millions, he probably missed the fact that his elegant power storage sculpture might bring much deeper change to the way we build our homes, the way we live our life and the way we connect to each other. And the way we could help to change the life of hundreds of millions around the world.

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