Tesla’s JB Straubel discusses batteries and scalability as new energy storage project is announced

Tesla Energy might not be attracting as much news as the company’s electric car business, but it has achieved some milestones of its own over the past few years. As of June 2018, Tesla had deployed a total of 1 GWh of energy storage worldwide, and during the company’s Q2 earnings call, Elon Musk and CTO JB Straubel reaffirmed Tesla’s commitment to growing its energy business over the coming years. Staubel even remarked that it might only be a matter of time before Tesla Energy overtakes the company’s electric car business in size.

Tesla’s batteries, such as the Powerpacks deployed on the Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia, are proving themselves as viable alternatives to fossil fuel-powered plants, and this is partly due to the fact that the energy industry hasn’t really evolved much over the past few decades. Tesla CTO JB Straubel highlighted this point in a recent segment with The Verge.

“You know, the electric grid hasn’t changed that much from 100-some years ago when Tesla and Edison were actually inventing it. Most people don’t realize, but it’s instantaneously matched — every time you turn on a light switch in your house, instantaneously, a power plant, somewhere, connected to that same grid, has to ramp up a little more power output to make the light operate,” Straubel said.

Most of the power used by cities today rely on large gas or coal-powered plants. In the United States, around 60% of power comes from fossil fuels, while ~20% comes from nuclear power stations. These large, baseload gas plants are consistent, but they are not very flexible. For example, when demand for power is too low, these plants lose money. When the demand gets too high, these facilities usually have to rely on faster, smaller plants called Peaker Plants to support the grid. Unfortunately, Peaker Plants are also traditionally dirtier than baseload gas plants. Straubel noted that this system causes the grid to get “dinged” on both sides.

“You get dinged when you don’t have enough load, and then when you have too much, you also get dinged inefficiently,” Straubel said.  

It’s still going to take some time before clean energy solutions become capable of adequately supporting the power grid on their own. Renewable energy such as solar and wind, after all, are very promising, but they are not very consistent. Solar power can get compromised on a cloudy day, and wind power can be compromised when there is no wind. This is where battery storage comes in. Paired with renewable solutions, batteries such as Tesla’s industry-grade Powerpacks are able to store gathered energy and feed it to the grid when needed. Grid-scale chemical batteries only comprise a small part of the renewable energy market for now, but the use of batteries has been growing over the years. This, according to the Tesla CTO, would have been inconceivable ten years ago.

“That was kind of unheard of ten years ago. If you told someone that hey, a lithium-ion battery could do that sort of duty, storing solar energy every single day for ten years, they wouldn’t have believed it. I think the biggest thing is scalability. Batteries have this beautiful ability to vary economically, scale from gigawatt-hour-sized systems all the way down to 10 kilowatt-hours in your house,” Straubel said.

True to Tesla’s statement during its Q2 2018 earnings call, the list of the company’s energy projects continue to get longer. Just recently, Infigen Energy, an operator of renewable energy generation solutions in Australia, ordered a 25 MW/52 MWh energy storage system from Tesla. The batteries would be deployed at the 278.5MW Lake Bonney Wind Farm in South Australia and connected to the grid via the Mayurra substation. In a statement to Renew Economy, Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) chief Ivor Frischknecht expressed his optimism about the energy storage project.

“It is clear that grid-scale batteries have an important role in stabilizing the grid. The co-location of a battery with a wind farm provides an opportunity for Infigen to pursue regulatory changes that could improve revenue outcomes for grid-scale batteries, helping to become more competitive,” he said.

During Tesla’s 2018 Annual Shareholder Meeting, Tesla CEO Elon Musk mentioned that the company is getting closer to a battery breakthrough, with the company on pace to hit a battery cell cost of $100 per kWh by the end of 2018 depending on the stability of current commodity prices. Tesla also announced that production of residential energy products such as the Powerwall 2 and the Solar Roof tiles are set to see an increase within the next few quarters.

Tesla’s JB Straubel discusses batteries and scalability as new energy storage project is announced
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