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Tessla, Batteries & Why Do We Care?

By George Harvey

Tesla Roadster (no longer in production)

The Tesla Roadster  is no longer in production. But the rumor is that it will be reintroduced at about the time Tesla’s gigafactory goes into production.

New battery technologies are being developed continually, and some show impressive promise. One particularly interesting example was in an announcement from the University of Southern California (USC) of a new flow battery technology. A flow battery has two fluid electrolytes flowing in opposite directions with a membrane between them. There are separate reservoirs for fresh and expended fluids. Such batteries can be recharged electrically, or the electrolytes can be pumped out with fresh electrolytes replacing them. They are said to be suitable for grid and home use.

The USC battery is notable for three reasons. First, the electrolytes are organic compounds that are relatively non-toxic. Second, it is longer lasting than a lithium-ion battery. Third, it costs only a very small fraction of what a lithium ion battery does. This design is only one of many, interesting examples of the research that is being done in this field.

We do not need to depend on new technology to reduce the prices of batteries, however. There are economic developments that will reduce the prices for current technology to the point that they can transform the grid.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, announced plans to build a $5 billion factory, what he calls a “gigafactory,” for manufacturing batteries. The purpose was partly to be able to produce 500,000 lithium-ion electric vehicle (EV) batteries each year for Tesla’s cars. The production was intended to supply batteries for other manufacturers as well as batteries for other purposes, including ones for both grid and home backup storage. In addition, space would be allocated for research and development of batteries of all types, both by Tesla and by other companies.

To get an idea of what this could mean, we might assume that each battery produced after the factory opens, at least a couple years hence, would hold 80 kWh of electricity, even though this is a very high figure for cars of today. It would mean that the total amount of electricity a year’s production of Tesla batteries could hold if they were all charged would be 40,000 MWh.

This, roughly the output of 40 nuclear power plants running for one hour, is the amount of combined storage for Tesla cars that would be added each year. Many of these cars will be charged on a “smart grid,” which could draw backup power from them, as needed. Of course, we cannot know how many cars might be available for the grid at any give time. Nevertheless, we can know that a huge amount of storage may be added to a smart grid each year, and this continually increasing amount can be used to store power from solar and wind farms.

EV batteries need to be replaced in time. When they are, they are still useful as grid backup batteries, and should have a service life of years ahead of them for the grid or for homes. As the car batteries age, these batteries will come on the market as good, used batteries, at a much reduced cost, in nearly the same numbers as the number of cars. Assuming that Tesla gets half the EV market, that would mean that sometime around 2025, a million or more of these batteries would become available as storage units for home or grid, the equivalent of 80 nuclear power plants for one hour being added each year.

Another development from Tesla was really astounding, however. The company released a large number of patents on battery technology so their competitors could use them freely. According to reports, Elon Musk decided to do this because he believes the future of humanity and the planet is more important than Tesla’s bottom line, a rather unusual notion for an investor.

Interestingly, just as Tesla was releasing its patents, General Motors announced they were planning on a large increase in the percentage of EVs in the cars they produce, saying that the current paradigm of automobile manufacturing is unsustainable (see the article on this on page 6 of the June issue of GET). This means that there was a potentially great value for GM in the patents Tesla was releasing.

The cost of large storage batteries for EVs has already declined sharply and is continuing to do so. As industry expands and the fruits of research come to market, it seems likely to continue that trend for quite a long time. Affordable Battery Storage is Coming.

George Harvey is the Senior Staff Writer for Green Energy Times.

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