Thursday, May 7, 2015

Tesla product announcement powers disconnected dreams

I've been reading a lot about last week's product announcement from Tesla's Elon Musk; batteries.
As the week progressed I increasingly felt a dark side to the excitement, related to an issue I've written on discretely in the past, which I'll include here less discretely after citing articles I feel notable following Tesla's announcement.

image from uncrate
from Brad Plumer in Vox, Elon Musk wants to revolutionize our energy system — with batteries:
Most people think of Tesla as a company that builds flashy — and expensive — luxury electric cars.
But now Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has even bigger plans than vehicles. He wants to make batteries a core part of Tesla's business, with the not-so-modest goal of transforming the world's electricity system.
There's a certain logic to this idea: Tesla is already making batteries for its electric cars. But batteries could potentially have broader applications, too. They could help homes and utilities make better use of solar power, charging up when the sun's out and saving power for when it's needed later. They could help supply electricity to areas far from the grid. They could bolster the grid against outages. And so on.
This isn't a brand-new type of battery. Rather, it's an effort to make home battery systems more widely popular. "The issue with existing batteries is that they suck," Musk said. "They are expensive, unreliable, and bad in every way." Tesla wants to change that by nudging down battery prices — making use of its new $5 billion GigaFactory in Nevada — and integrating them with existing solar-power systems.

It's an audacious plan, and it raises some hard questions: Why would anyone buy these expensive batteries?                 -[emphasis added]
There's a dream of independence coupled with an Apple-like brand promising the future.

Tom Lombardo's Tesla's Powerwall by the Numbers, at, goes over some numbers, the functions ("load shifting, photovoltaic (PV) storage, and backup power"). I felt his concluding section well chosen:
Hey … You, Get Off of the Grid!
Here’s where I see the Powerwall making its mark: off-grid applications. In developing nations and remote areas, it’s too expensive to bring grid power to homes. In those cases, a PV system with on-site storage is the best solution. (Some might argue that a gasoline, diesel, natural gas, or propane generator is more cost-effective, but it’s not really off-grid if a truck has to haul fossil fuel to the site every couple of months.) 
Currently there are few storage options for off-grid users. Deep-cycle lead-acid batteries are the most common since they’ve been around for a long time. But lead-acid batteries require maintenance several times each year and degrade when exposed to extreme temperatures. They also have a lower energy density than Li-ion, so the same capacity will take up much more space and won’t hang on a wall easily. Finally, lead-acid batteries suffer greatly when the depth of discharge exceeds 50%, which means that a customer would have to purchase twice as much storage as he expects to use. Many off-grid users need a dedicated battery room. Tesla’s Powerwall is clean, scalable, and maintenance-free, and it hangs unobtrusively on a wall. 
With all the investment in this technology, both for EVs and for home/commercial/utility storage, I can see the price of Li-ion batteries dropping significantly over the next five to ten years ... just in time for my wife and I to build our off-grid solar powered retirement cabin!
Off the grid, by the lake, away form the unpleasantries of society: all made possible by Tesla's battery hanging on the wall, like a fine work of art.

Here's one description from a Globe and Mail story quoting an Ontario personality I recall back from writing Green is the Old White 3 years ago.
Tesla Motors Inc.’s innovative in-home battery pack is being brought to Canada by Annette Verschuren, the former Home Depot Canada boss who now runs an energy storage company.
The Tesla Powerwall storage system will be distributed in Canada by Ms. Verschuren’s firm NRStor Inc.
... it is the beautiful design and simple function of the battery that is crucial to marketing the product, Ms. Verschuren said. “The image of a battery is that they are ugly,” but Mr. Musk has “brilliantly” turned it into a good-looking consumer product, she said.
I'll return to Ms. Verschuren and her NRStor Inc. later, because she appears elsewhere in recent news.

Tesla's partnerships extend to Germany, where a German Energy blog reported on the market theory behind grid integration of distributed generation (DG), such as Tesla's offering - and also notes the design of this partnership is taken from a failed one.
Tesla describes the Powerwall as the missing link to bridge the gap between renewable energy supply and demand, making home solar energy available when needed. Powerwall charges using electricity generated from solar panels, in particular when utility rates are low and powers homes at times when solar power is not directly available and has to be purchased from a utility.
Lichtblick will collaborate by linking decentralized producers and storage systems and connecting them to the energy markets through its SchwarmDirigent IT platform. The company pointed out that it already operates a digital power plant in Germany with over a thousand decentralized units. Once linked to the cluster, the Tesla Powerwall owners will be able to draw excess wind and solar power from the electricity network and then, during calm or cloudy periods, use this electricity in buildings or feed it back into the network.
Theoretically a very big differential between low-priced periods and high-priced periods is needed to justify any non-trivial investment in time-shifting products; practically, high-prices aren't often tolerated well. That's one reason combined heat and power (CHP) has become less attractive in Germany.
Another is the overall gutting of market pricing as the share of power purchased at set prices, particularly on feed-in tariff contracts, grew.

The self-powered home of Teslans isn't everybody's dream, nor is the "smart" grid that would pay such people nicely under a premise that distributed generation (DG) is inherently superior.
Severin Borenstein writing on the Energy Institute at Haas blog (Berkely):
I’m sorry, but count me among the people who get no special thrill from making our own shoes, roasting our own coffee, or generating our own electricity. I don’t think my house should be energy independent any more than it should be food independent or clothing independent. Advanced economies around the world have gotten to be advanced economies by taking advantage of economies of scale, not by encouraging every household to be self-sufficient.
That’s not to say that distributed generation couldn’t be the best way for some people at some locations to adopt renewables, but simply that DG should not be the goal in itself. We desperately need to reduce greenhouse gases from the electricity sector, not just in the U.S., but around the world, including some very poor countries where affordability is a real barrier and electricity access is life-changing. If DG is the least costly way to get that done, I’m in, but the choice should be driven by real cost-benefit analysis, not slogans about energy freedom.
It is unlikely gated power supply for gated mansions, or maybe just gated communities, is likely to be the most efficient way to supply power to an entire functional society.

It is more likely the promise of that independent home that can run regardless of the state of the outside world will serve up schemes to take from many to benefit a few.

To Ms. Verschuren again, who appeared in Bloomberg's Ancient Greek Technology Tests Musk Batteries on Storage on May 6th - 2 days after the Globe story of her bringing arty batteries to Canada:
In Canada, Ontario’s grid operator wants to add 16 megawatts of storage, including CAES [compressed air energy storage] , to cope with a supply surge from wind turbines and solar panels. NRStor Inc., which is bidding for the contract, expects the efficiency and cost of air storage to improve.
Were Ontario to add 1,000 megawatts of compressed air storage, consumers would save C$8 billion ($6.6 billion) over 20 years, said NRStor Chief Executive Officer Annette Verschuren. With the system she’s proposing, stored air could turn turbines for as long as 300 hours.
“Ontario has really built up a lot of renewable energy and is building up a lot more surplus energy,” Verschuren said. “We would capture the night stuff, capture the weekend stuff and put the energy on the grid during daytime.”
NRStor sees the price of compressed air systems falling fall to one-tenth that of the expected $350 a kilowatt hour cost of battery storage in 2022, said Verschuren. She declined to say how much the Ontario project will cost.
3 years ago this ex-retailer Vershuren was placed in the Chair of an Ontario Clean Energy Task Force, which allegedly was intended to " to help broaden Ontario's energy focus by facilitating collaboration within Ontario's clean energy industry to identify export markets, marketing opportunities and approaches to demonstrate Ontario's advanced clean energy systems." 

Vershuren's qualification to lead the useless task force was her NRStor, which was developing (scoring a contract) for its "flywheel energy storage facility in Harriston, Ontario." 

The task force never did, as far as I know, produce anything of relevance, and 3 years later it's chair is dreaming of importing Tesla batteries instead of exporting Ontario's expertise in anything.

batteries, or flywheels, or compressed air.

In Ontario we may not know what the future is,
but our government somehow knows who it is.

I could use that disconnected cottage now.


  1. I'm with you Scott -- gimme an extended outage from this unadulterated bunkum masquerading as energy futurism.

    I want to see Elon Musk try to break the world record for longest blatherfest extravaganza, BUT -- power it with solar panels and the same size battery pack that ran the Powerwall announcement.

    See if he can beat, say, Castro.

    Blessedly, he won't even get close.

  2. This from Tom Randall writing on Bloomberg Business:

    "To provide the same 16 kilowatts of continuous power as this $3,700 Generac generator from Home Depot, a homeowner would need eight stacked Tesla batteries at a cost of $45,000 for a nine-year lease. "It's a luxury good—really cool to have—but I don't see an economic argument," said Brian Warshay, an energy-smart-technologies analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance."