Elon Musk has a vision of a world powered entirely with renewable energy and sleek-looking batteries built by Tesla.
After much speculation, Tesla finally announced its secret new product: a series of battery systems for homes, utilities, and businesses. The batteries are all under the umbrella of what the company is calling Tesla Energy.
It’s more exciting than it sounds.
The batteries can provide backup power during grid outages, store excess solar energy for when the sun isn’t shining (instead of sending it back to the grid at wholesale prices), and store power from the electric grid when it’s cheapest–instead of tapping into the grid when energy usage is at its costly peak. This means that electric vehicle owners can store energy during the day and charge their cars with that energy at night.
Musk, Tesla’s CEO, hammered home his vision during a livestreamed press conference. After walking on stage, the first thing he did–before announcing anything about Tesla Energy–was show a picture of a coal plant and a graph of the growing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
“I think we collectively should do something about this, and not try to win the Darwin Award,” he said, referring to cheeky awards given to people who die in especially stupid ways. “The obvious problem with solar power is that the sun doesn’t shine at night. Even during the day, energy generation varies. It’s important to smooth out that energy generation and retain enough so that you can use it at night.”
The Tesla Energy batteries are a way to do that–and to hear Musk tell it, they’re much better than other storage batteries that have come before. “The issue with existing batteries is that they suck. They’re expensive, they’re unreliable, they’re sort of stinky, ugly, and bad in every way,” he said.
Tesla’s product for homes, called the PowerWall Home Battery, is made up of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, a control system, and software. It comes in two versions: a 10kWh/$3,500 pack, ideal for backup power applications, and a 7kWh/$3,000 version for daily use. That cost excludes installation and the inverter, so the real price could be significantly higher. The PowerWall is available to buy on Tesla’s website now, with shipping in the next three or four months.
“It looks like a beautiful sculpture on the wall,” said Musk. The PowerWall is stackable (up to nine can be stacked at once) and can be mounted in a garage or on the outside of a house.
While it’s not cheap (though as many have pointed out, it’s cheaper than some editions of the Apple Watch), Musk imagines that the PowerWall–which is already out in the wild as part of a pilot project with 300 customers of SolarCity, the solar company run by Musk’s cousin–could be used in remote parts of the world where electricity is intermittent or expensive.
Tesla’s battery system solution for larger customers, the PowerPack, is “designed to scale infinitely,” according to Musk, who speculated that 160 million PowerPacks could transition the entire U.S. to renewables.
A number of business customers, including Amazon, Target, and Jackson Family Wines are already using it.
Amazon Web Services, for example, is planning to launch a 4.8 mWh pilot of the batteries in northern California as a way to make intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind more reliable. Jackson Family Wines already has 21 Power Packs installed, providing 4.2 MW of storage capacity.
Tesla is also working on a handful of utility projects, with companies like Southern California Edison and OnCor.
Tesla’s new Nevada battery factory, the Gigafactory, will produce 50 million kWh of lithium ion batteries by 2020, and Musk hinted that a big chunk of that production capacity will be used to make PowerWalls and PowerPacks. As we mentioned previously, one of the Gigafactory’s goals is to lower lithium-ion battery costs by 30%, and having dedicated production for storage batteries could make sure that it’s always working at full capacity.
In order to create any sort of battery-powered renewable energy revolution, Tesla can’t be the only big player. It isn’t–as Musk pointed out, other companies make battery packs already. But Tesla is also planning to open-source all patents related to its batteries, including those for the Gigafactory, which will itself be the first of many Gigafactories. We have the solar panels and the wind turbines: The next step for renewable energy is batteries.