Tesla Motors released the Powerwall yesterday, an in-home battery appliance will allow people to live off the grid by being able to store renewable energy sources. Or, if they live on the grid, to store it from solar cells or windmills and use it during peak hours (or store from the utility while it while energy’s cheap and use it when it’s expensive).
If these Powerwalls are integrated into a larger electrical system, it takes out much of the complication of sudden power loads (think: air conditioners during a heat wave). Power generation is currently an on-demand game and if the power company can’t generate what’s needed at that moment, blackouts and brownouts happen.
Connecting the name Tesla with batteries — a direct current technology — is pretty ironic. Tesla, the person, was a proponent of alternating current (backed by Westinghouse) to transmit electricity over long distances in the early 1900s when cities were trying to figure out the problem.His rival, Thomas Edison, was a proponent of DC to transmit power.
Both were showmen to promote their respective technologies. Nikola Tesla dramatized AC power with Tesla coils. These are Tesla coils if you’ve never seen one. They are the definition of bad ass.
Edison did it by inventing the electric chair and electrocuting stray dogs, cats and a circus elephant named Topsy in an attempt to demonstrate the danger of AC power. If you’ve ever watched Bob’s Burgers, you may be acquainted with the story and it gives me an excuse to post this:
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla the company, is a showman in his own right, but not the sort (thankfully) that fries stray pets — instead he’s been drawn in on The Simpsons, is making self-driving cars a real thing and owns a rocket company. In the case of the Powerwall, $3,500 buys a 10kWh, that’s kilowatthour, battery from Tesla that’s meant to be, as the name implies, hung from a wall. This is cheap. (More on this later.)
They can be grouped together and managed over the internet. If your needs are more modest, there’s 7kWh battery for $3,000 and if you need something for utility/business/enterprise/secret lair purposes, there’s also a 10kWh model that’s expected to go for around $13,000. Keep in mind that the average American home uses about 30kWh per day, according to figures from the US Energy Information Administration.
How does $3,500 for 10kWh stack up? At $350 per kWh, that’s $150 less than the competition according to Mashable. The capital cost of batteries are still being calculated at between $500 to $600 per kWh and, as we like to keep on pointing out, that price is dropping faster than anyone expected.
Despite the price, Forbes is painting the Powerwall as “another toy for rich people.” It may be true, but things get cheaper and Tesla’s Powerwall is expected to be no exception. But it is an extremely hopeful sign that prices are coming down to a point where discussing decentralized power generation at the home level isn’t the stuff of science fiction and is something that looks like it’ll happen very soon.
Which brings us back to AC and DC, Tesla and Edison. As much as Edison wanted people to believe DC was a practical alternative, the fact is that DC doesn’t transmit well over a mile and AC won. But in order to utilize AC, everything that’s plugged in needs a transformer to turn it into DC.
Neither DC or AC is perfect and a hundred years after people started plugging things into the wall, we’re finally getting to a point where we can start to consider unplugging from the grid. In 1900, Nikola Tesla wrote, “Whatever our resources of primary energy may be in the future, we must, to be rational, obtain it without consumption of any material.”
By answering the problems of utilizing renewable energy, Elon Musk’s Tesla Powerwall is also a wonderwall. (And my excuse to link to another video.)