The visionary billionaire, Elon Musk, seems to have successfully bounced back from the problems with the SpaceX Falcon rocket, and now appears to have a new string to his bow with his plans to provide energy storage facilities for households.
What more is there to say about the flamboyant Elon Musk, a man who is a worthy heir to American genius Thomas Edison and Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla? We have seen the latest pictures of a SpaceX Falcon rocket returning successfully to earth, just a few short months after the accident that saw a Falcon blow up on the launch pad – which might have dealt a fatal blow to the SpaceX project. We have the latest, back-on-target, production figures from his (aptly named) Tesla electric car manufacturing company – which will, going forward, be focusing on self-driving vehicles. Yet more exciting chapters added to his stupendous personal story and business journey, which include the enormous success of PayPal, the development of the hypersonic terrestrial passenger and freight transportation system Hyperloop, plus his SolarCity large scale solar energy services venture.
Yet another area in which this real-life Tony Stark looks set to make his mark is energy storage systems for the home. Elon Musk’s vision is to turn our houses and apartments into mini electricity generation and storage plants, an approach which could disrupt the large-scale centralised electricity network systems, based on large power plants and high voltage lines and grids, which are characteristic of developed countries.
Brought to you from the Gigafactory
In practical terms, the idea is to use for the storage requirements rechargeable lithium-ion batteries of the kind already in production in their thousands for Tesla cars at the huge Tesla Gigafactory 1 located near the US city of Sparks, Nevada. Production of the Tesla Powerwall, as the energy storage units are called, began in January 2016. The launch took place right in the middle of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which meant that the name Elon Musk was on everyone’s lips there, although the ‘Iron Man’ himself shunned the event. And it must be said that Musk’s tendency to do exactly as he likes has – so far – served him very well.
The idea is moreover based on known, proven technology. Compared with other battery technologies, using nickel for example, lithium-ion batteries have the advantage of being more efficient in terms of their self-discharge rate. And once again Elon Musk and his team have been able to improve existing systems in order to really raise the performance of the battery.
As befits his image among tech fans as the spiritual heir to Steve Jobs, Elon Musk has put a lot into the design of his batteries, which are not only intended for use in Tesla cars but also in the home and these need to have a sleek appearance, rather like the very latest radiators. Musk worked hard on the ‘look’ of the Powerwall, which has an elegant ovoid shape, uses beautiful materials and comes in attractive colours – an iPhone take on the battery of the future. However, there remains one problem that the company will have to solve: lithium is a fairly rare element. If Elon Musk wants to sell batteries to every home, the price might rocket into the stratosphere.
Powering the entire house from the sun
If these basic structural problems can be sorted out, the concept could well become truly disruptive as it basically means building an entire decentralised system of energy independence around the battery. The way it works is that the Powerwall lets you move time – storing electricity generated via solar panels on the roof during the daytime to supply the home and power household appliances at night. Using time-shifted solar (or eventually also wind-power) through storage facilities is rather like having your own power plant at home. This could radically alter our approach to energy generation, moving us to a decentralised system of independent power producer-consumers, a bit like ranches in the United States, which have wind turbines in their backyards. For most Europeans, who are used to relying on vast grids run by utility companies, this would mean a radical revolution in thinking and would represent a huge practical change.
Of course the system still has to be cost-effective. At the moment, the Powerwall costs several thousand euro, and so your outlay would take many years to amortise. As one might expect, a lot of calculations giving us the pros and the cons of the batteries have been made. One of the key factors in measuring the immediate profitability of the system is the electricity price where you live. If the price is relatively low, as for example in France, it will be hard to draw much financial benefit from your investment in the Powerwall, even once the initial investment has been amortised. In countries where electricity is far more expensive, such as Germany, the home storage battery would pay for itself much faster.
Always one step ahead?
But there is not only the question of return on investment. This approach is also about care for the environment and lifestyle choices that include opting to use greener energy. This can be an individual choice but it is also certainly one that concerns society as a whole. After all, Tesla cars are expensive items. People who buy them do so partly in order to own a beautifully designed, fashionable object, but there is also the desire to drive an electric-powered or self-driving vehicle. If price were a decisive barrier, Apple would not have enjoyed the success it has with its smartphones and tablets. As is so often the case with the visionary Elon Musk, it is not easy today to say whether his semi- autonomous energy system will win through. This will call for a radical change not only in our habits, but also in our basic infrastructures – systems, networks and grids.
But that is what is so amazing about this extraordinary man. He always seems to be a couple of steps ahead. He never stops telling us that he wants to change the world. No one can predict with certainty whether he will manage it with his Tesla cars or his SpaceX Falcon rockets, but he might well do so with his batteries.