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Can Elon Musk's battery really cut your power lines?

Lucas Mearian | May 6, 2015
Is lithium-ion the right technology?

What could go wrong?

In the U.S., the average household uses 30kWh of power each day, at a peak use rate of 1.2kW, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Tesla's Powerwall batteries can provide 2kW of continuous power and has a peak power rating of 3kW. The average home, however, would need three Tesla 10kWh batteries, at a cost of over $10,000, to meet all its energy needs, something Lux Research's Frankel is dubious will happen.

During a press conference at Tesla's design studios in Hawthorne, Calif., last week, Musk spoke passionately about the need to rid the world of fossil fuel dependence.

"This is how it is today," said Musk, pointing a projector screen with a photo of coal-fired power plants billowing dark gray smoke into the air. "It sucks."

Musk then pointed to a graphic called The Keeling Curve, which tracks the amount of CO2 (greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere. Since 1960, they've increased from 315 parts per million (ppm) to 400ppm today.

"Every day it ratchets up. If we do nothing, that's where it's headed. To levels that we don't even see in the fossil record," Musk said. "I think we collectively should do something about this and not try to win the Darwin Award."

As admirable as Musk's vision may be, Frankel doesn't believe coal-fired power plants, which make up the bulk of energy production in the U.S. and around the world, will be going away anytime soon. The sheer cost of ramping up solar production to the levels Musk envisions would be "astronomical" and take decades, Frankel said.

Today, for example, the U.S. gets only about 1% of its power from solar.

"Elon's vision of [an] all-renewable future, and storage being the missing piece, is in some ways an idealist vision and one that will not likely happen as any sort of medium-term opportunity," Frankel said.

Tesla is open-sourcing its battery technology as well as its Gigafactory's blueprints and processes, in the hope that other companies will emulate it and make their own, Musk said.

Musk believes home and business battery uptake will follow a similar trend to cellular phones, where in developing nations landline deployment was leapfrogged by the new technology.

"There wasn't a need to put land lines in at lot of countries or remote locations. So people in remote villages or islands somewhere can take solar panels and combine them with the Tesla Powerwall and never have to worry about having electricity lines," Musk said.

Because of Tesla's experience in developing batteries for its electric vehicles, it brings a more sophisticated battery system to homes and businesses than do other suppliers, according to Anise Dehamna, principal research analyst at Navigant Research. For example, Tesla's battery system has more advanced thermo management, which is crucial for safety.


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