When billionaire Elon Musk introduced Tesla’s Powerwall home battery, most of the media greeted his announcement with the same bemused disbelief that had followed previous Musk deals.
PayPal? It’ll never work — no one can compete with Visa and MasterCard!
SpaceX? Putting stuff in orbit is serious stuff, boy! Leave it to the guv’mint!
Tesla Motors? No one but a few greenies would want an electric car, no matter what Consumer Reports says!
Gigafactory? A solar-powered, $5 billion battery factory in Reno for electric cars that nobody wants — you can’t be serious!
Tesla Energy? Really, a 10KW, $3,500 lithium-ion battery pack on your garage wall? No thanks, Elon! We’ll just buy a portable generator and fire her up when we need some of that ’lectricity!
Musk’s business plan has always been clear. He looks for businesses that seem immune from competition, worldwide behemoths with vast resources, and he goes after them. He has successfully tangled with credit card issuers, the government space transport monopoly and automobile manufacturers.
Now, Musk has set his sights on the electric utility industry.
He doesn’t operate in secrecy.
“Our goal is to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy,” Musk told the media in a pre-event briefing for his latest innovation.
“Which sounds crazy.”
The Tesla Powerpack aims to solve the largest problem associated with renewable energy: energy storage. Sun and wind are intermittent energy sources, which produce a lot of energy some of the time, and none at all at other times.
The usual solution to this dilemma has been to bully utility companies into buying renewable energy that they don’t really need, thereby satisfying customers and politicians who are worried about power plants’ carbon emissions.
Such policies aren’t scalable. As the experiences of Hawaii and Germany have demonstrated, when subsidized renewables reach a certain level, the basic electric utility business model becomes unsustainable.
Who will pay to maintain the grid? How can traditional operators stay in business when thousands of independent power generators cream off peak power demand, and make you pay them for doing it?
Thanks to cheap, high-capacity storage coupled with ever-cheaper solar installations, the problem becomes even more acute.
Before formally introducing the Powerpack and Powerwall, Tesla tested the product in 300 homes and a dozen Walmarts. It seems clear that Tesla has created a new industry, one that promises to upend the status quo.
When Colorado Springs Utilities generates electricity, it has no way of storing it for future use. The power gets used immediately, or not at all. That problem is particularly acute for the coal-fired units at Drake and Nixon power plants, since they can neither be quickly shut down nor quickly restarted.
To see how strange this is, compare it to CSU’s water division. It wouldn’t work without reservoirs, pipelines and wells — all means of storing and transporting water to supply future demand.
Cheap, scalable electricity storage will eventually have the same effect on electric utilities that cell phones had on landline operators. They’ll have to make radical changes, and it’s not easy to predict what those changes will be.
Will prices for photovoltaics and storage fall so low that tens of millions of customers in Southern California, Arizona and Texas disconnect from the grid? Will energy-intensive businesses migrate to the southern U.S. to take advantage of cheap, self-generated electricity? Will coal actually make a comeback, as utilities use massive banks of Tesla batteries to store cheap off-peak power, thereby multiplying power plants’ efficiency?
We don’t know, obviously, but it looks as if Musk has positioned his company to be the dominant force in a rapidly growing industry.
According to a piece by Lyndsey Gilpin in TechRepublic, GTM Research reported last week that the United States installed 61.9 megawatts of energy storage in 2014, a number that’s expected to nearly triple in 2015. GTM predicts continued market growth of 100 to 250 percent annually for the foreseeable future.
Musk wants a big chunk of that growth. When the Gigafactory reaches full capacity in 2020, its annual production of lithium-ion batteries will reach 35 gigawatt-hours.
Most of that production will go to Tesla automobiles, but if 20 percent of it goes to home/business storage devices, that’s 7,000 megawatt-hours.
And if that’s not enough, Elon Musk can always build another factory. Because, let’s be realistic, $5 billion is chump change if your goal is to reshape and dominate a multi-trillion-dollar, worldwide industry.