By Ron Young —
Studying the past can inform us about lives that have caused a sea of changes in the course of human history. Such men as Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Henry Ford come to mind, but it is often much more difficult for us to identify modern day geniuses. Steve Jobs is one who many regard as a modern day visionary, but you can get into an argument on any street corner about that and only time will tell. Another who some consider a modern visionary is Elon Musk. Mr. Musk was the co-founder of Paypal, and the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Each of those companies has brought about significant and dramatic progress in their respective fields.
In matters of renewable energy and sustainability the electric car is going to be a very big player in coming years. While Elon Musk didn’t invent the electric car he is the man who has captured our imagination with his production of the Tesla Model S, arguably one of the finest motorcars ever built. The heart of electric cars is a viable battery pack that is efficient in energy, size, and cost and that is the big nut to crack to ensure future success, with the emphasis being on co$t. Wide consumer acceptance of the electric car will only take place once cost is in line with the average pocketbook.
Accordingly, the electric car battery has to become much less expensive, more efficient, and available in large quantities so Mr. Musk has decided to take a huge risk and lay his fortune on the line, something he has done many times in the past. He is building a massive electric battery factory in the US called the Gigafactory that will manufacture electric car batteries at a scale that will bring the cost down and make the electric car a viable proposition for the rest of us.
Henry Ford was a man who always worked at ‘vertical integration,’ which is a concept where existing resources are used for more than their intended single purpose. A great example of this is where Ford insisted that crates used to ship him parts for his automobiles would be made of a certain type of wood and have holes drilled in specific places so that when the crates were disassembled the boards could be used as floorboards in the Model T.
Musk, in a similar fashion, is using vertical integration to market his electric car battery to a whole different segment of the market; homeowners who want to have electricity independent of the electric grid. The battery will be re-packaged into what Musk has termed a Powerwall battery, an attractive package that will mount on your wall and interconnect with your household loads to give you power. The battery will be paired with solar panels for charging and will also re-charge from the electric grid when necessary.
While the overall investment including solar panels will still be a big-ticket item, it has captured the attention of many people who are concerned with the uncertainty of electricity supply and rising rates. Pre-orders for the Powerwall product, which won’t be shipping for many months, have, according to one pundit “gone off the hook.” The idea has gone viral.
Information and clear specifics on total cost and capability of the Powerwall are not yet forthcoming, but Elon Musk has the ability to capture our imaginations in a very powerful way, almost hypnotic, and other companies who have had similar products in development are ramping up their own marketing and production to meet the upcoming demand. Panasonic, for example, is running a huge marketing campaign in Australia, one of the most solarized countries in the world.
I think that the big application of the Powerwall will be to offset what are called “time of use charges.” In the US, many states have implemented much higher electricity rates during certain daily periods when demand is much heavier. The difference in cost can be easily .48 cents a kilowatt hour compared to regular rates of .11 cents. The ability to offset time of use rates would rapidly make the Powerwall a useful product. You can shut off your demand for grid electricity and use the Powerwall batteries until you are out of the period of high demand; as long as you can keep your electricity use within the strict limitations of the 2 kW battery pack.
While none of this technology is new, it is repackaging of existing technology in an exciting way. In my own home we have had a solar powered battery pack for many years and it provides us with power whenever it can store energy from the sun. When the stored energy is gone, the grid is re-connected automatically. With Elon Musk’s Powerwall product he is repackaging the power storage idea in the same way that Steve Jobs repackaged the personal computer and the personal music device—in a way that we can all use, high in cool factor, low on cost, and a huge benefit for the environment.
Ron Young is a renewable energy professional that designs and sells and installs solar, wind, and micro-hydro systems. He operates the earthRight store in Williams Lake, BC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Ron Young 2015