Good news continues to roll in on the renewable energy front. Earlier this year, we reported on the steady drop in solar panel prices and revealed that renewable energy now costs less than coal power in some areas (Green Gazette, April/May 2015). Our latest news comes from Elon Musk, the celebrated developer of the Tesla electric car. Musk has announced that his company will be manufacturing batteries to store energy generated by solar and wind systems, with a predicted price tag of less than half the current battery costs. This reduced price point is huge news for the energy landscape.
Tesla is building a giant factory in Nevada to ramp up production of these lithium-ion power-storage batteries, which will be designed for both electric utilities (the “Powerpack”) and home-scale setups (the “Powerwall”). Many analysts are predicting that this development will be a crucial game-changer that could ultimately — Hooray! — end our fossil-fuel addiction and the endless wars we’ve waged to protect “our” oil supply. Plus, this development should finally halt the use of nuclear power, and slow the insane rush of fracking for natural gas.
The biggest barriers to expanding solar and wind have been solar’s daytime-only capacity and the variability of wind power. Better, lower-cost storage batteries are already rapidly resolving these challenges, and Tesla's new options will be another exciting leap forward. The use of these revolutionary batteries also means utility companies can stop building more unpopular, expensive, giant, long-distance transmission lines and quit relying on natural gas plants to support the grid during periods of peak demand. Better battery storage will give homeowners who don’t own solar or wind systems a new option for backup power when the grid goes down.
Even before Musk made headlines with his April 30, 2015, announcement about the Tesla home battery pack, the Rocky Mountain Institute predicted that “rising retail prices for grid electricity and declining costs for solar PV and batteries mean that grid-connected solar-plus-battery systems will be economical within the next 10 to 15 years for many customers. Thus, it’s critical that utilities, regulators and other stakeholders urgently pursue reform to embrace solar, batteries and other distributed energy resources as an integral, optimized part of the future grid, rather than as a threat to that grid.”
Musk has made dramatic predictions about his new batteries, and some feel he’s being overly optimistic. But his storage batteries are by no means the only game in town. Many other kinds of batteries are already on, or coming to, the market, including advanced lead-acid, sodium-sulfur, many variations of lithium, plus iron-chromium and vanadium flow batteries. Flow batteries are bulkier than lithium options, but can last much longer. Innovative energy solutions are proliferating these days, and invention is in the air. Storing energy in compressed air? Or by making ice? We’ve only just begun to see where developers’ imaginations can take us.
Most analysts say that Musk’s less expensive power-storage batteries, together with other declines in solar and wind costs, will “disrupt” the grid even faster than projected. This is great news for those of us pushing for policies that will reduce greenhouse gases and thus slow climate change.