Then and Now
I took a course in college that spanned the entire history of the printed word, from hieroglyphics, to scribes, to the printing press, to now.
It wasn’t the most thrilling class I’ve ever taken, but I will always remember one thing my professor said.
He told us that one person living in the 21st century will absorb more information from just the front page of one issue of the New York Times than an average individual would have learned in their entire lifetime during the middle ages.
I cannot fully express how much this blows my mind.
We live in a time when knowledge and innovation is accelerating at exponential rates—rates never before seen in the history of the world.
Perhaps one of the best barometers in the expansion of technology and its applications, is the demand for rechargeable power sources.
Powering the Future Everything
When talking about batteries, one company, and one CEO spring to mind almost immediately: Tesla, and Elon Musk.
You know about the cars. You probably know about the Gigfactory, but as of last week, Tesla’s interest in the battery sector gained yet one more layer – the Powerwall.
Tesla’s Powerwall is one more breakthrough in a series of advancements that have the potential to change the way we live every day.
But Tesla’s Powerwall does something more than the average techy toy. The Powerwall brings the idea of sustainability into mainstream conversations about home energy use.
Let’s do a quick rundown of the current solar power status, for those of us who may not be completely familiar.
If you have solar power, you obviously produce all of it during the day, when the sun is out and the demand for electricity is relatively low.
Demand for energy is the highest in the morning (think hair dryers, microwaves, Keurigs, etc.) and in the evenings (stoves/ovens, TVs, lights because it’s dark, etc.) You get it.
During the day, businesses are using the majority of the power, but that’s almost nothing compared to every American’s home in the morning and evening.
To Store, Or To Sell?
So, if you have solar panels, you’re making electricity during the time of day when you’re probably not home.
Therefore, you have a surplus of power.
At this point, you have two choices.
You can store the power in a battery pack, or sell it back to the grid (aka: your energy company.)
When you sell it back to the grid, now they have a surplus of power.
Their power plants get to take a break during this time and produce less power than they would normally.
However, that power is still never getting stored, so come evening time, the plant goes back to normal to power everything, same thing for the following morning.
So the solar power doesn’t really benefit anybody much except for the person with the panel by making a bit of cash on the side.
Most power companies only allow you to offset your power usage, otherwise you could technically be a small power plant and they’d owe you money every month for the electricity.
So that’s one issue of not storing the power…it doesn’t really help the situation other than on a personal level.
Now, to the Tesla Powerwall. Yes, it is a battery pack for solar power. That’s nothing new.
The special sauce for the Powerwall? Lithium.
If you haven’t paid attention at all, here’s where you should start.
Deep Cycle To Lithium
Up until now, solar batteries have been lead acid– what you’d call ‘deep cycle.’
They are meant to be charged, drained, then charged again. These batteries are common on boats.
Unlike car batteries where the battery starts the car and the alternator keeps it running, boats use deep cycle batteries to operate all electronics while out on the water.
Thats why you see a lot of boats plugged into the dock while they’re berthed.
Deep cycle batteries are incredibly huge, incredibly heavy, and incredibly expensive.
They also are likely only to last between four and five years. You’re probably going to need a series of these ugly beasts in order to store the necessary power capacity. Lead acid batteries need maintenance– sometimes distilled water or more acid.
If one battery goes down, it can take down the entire array.
Lead acid batteries release hydrogen gas when they become unstable, so maintenance is vital.
The maintenance is expensive, but we’ve all seen the Hindenburg. We all know what happens when you have hydrogen gas laying around, so I guess the maintenance is worth it.
I talked to a friend of mine about this, and after his long lecture about watts, amperage and voltage, we both came to the conclusion that a person would need to spend an exorbitant amount of money to afford a battery pack that could power a house for even one day.
Add the circuit network and the actual solar panels, and we have “a very expensive proposition just in order to make some damn HotPockets without killing the planet.” These were his words, not mine.
But, I share the same sentiment.
Tesla’s Elon Musk has found a way for Americans to make HotPockets in an affordable and eco-friendly way. If that’s not a leap for mankind, I don’t know what is.
Like we said, Tesla’s Powerwall uses lithium technology.
Lithium batteries are already fairly common.
Phones, Computers, Cars… Homes
You’re holding one right now if you’re reading this on a smartphone, desktop, or tablet…
These batteries are light, low-maintenance, and last a long time.
Tesla is providing a 10 year warranty for their Powerwall. 10 YEARS. That’s a long time in the battery world.
Tesla has also managed to create a battery with a higher power density–meaning they can fit more energy into each unit of weight. This is important because I don’t want ten huge, ugly batteries in my garage.
I want something I can mount on the wall without worrying about the wall ripping down because of the weight. Have you seen a picture of the Powerwall? It’s beautifully sleek.
As if I didn’t already plan on hanging an Elon Musk poster over my bed, the CEO is maintaining Tesla’s open-source patent policy. Tesla is sharing the technology and inviting competitors to join in the R&D.
They did it with their auto technology, and now they’re doing it with the powerwall. Last year, Musk put out this statement:
“Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers.
We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.”
I just want to hug this guy. He’s sacrificing potentially billions of dollars in technology property rights just to make the planet a better place.
And you didn’t think superheroes were real?
Ultimately, the Powerwall is an amazing system.
It’s moving society forward to start using energy in a way that’s more efficient and sustainable for the average household, rather than power companies raking it in because they can.
The open-source approach means the technology should eventually become affordable for the everyday person. Tesla’s GigaFactory will provide the capacity for the company to assemble at an enormous scale.
Lithium batteries already have a huge presence in our lives. Like I said–you’re probably holding one right now.
The Powerwall is incorporating Lithium technology even further into your everyday life, and the GigaFactory is making it possible to meet that skyrocketing demand.
But the big question always is: How much will the public actually want the Powerwall?
Well, since announcing this new line, Tesla has taken more than $800 million worth of reservations. That’s $800 million in less than a week.
Granted, these reservations are just statements of intent to buy these things when they become available, but if they reflect actual orders, Tesla’s as of yet unfinished gigfactory wouldn’t be big enough to handle all the demand.
A gigafactory, still under construction, and already not enough to handle demand for both Powerwall units, as well as Tesla’s car batteries.
“We should have built a bigger factory,” quipped Musk.
That’s how bright the future is for batteries, lithium, and more than anything else, Tesla.