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Here Comes the Sun: Tesla Unveils New Home Battery to Harness Solar Power

May 1, 2015
Tesla founder Elon Musk trumpets new Powerwall, which could transform 'the entire energy infrastructure of the world.'

LOS ANGELES — Electric car pioneer Tesla Motors (IW 500/384) unveiled a “home battery” Thursday that its founder Elon Musk said would help change the “entire energy infrastructure of the world.”

The Tesla Powerwall can store power from solar panels, from the electricity grid at night when it is typically cheaper, and provide a secure backup in the case of a power outage.

In theory, the device, which typically would fit on the wall of a garage or inside a house, could make solar-powered homes completely independent of the traditional energy grid.

“The goal is complete transformation of the entire energy infrastructure of the world, to completely sustainable zero carbon,” Musk told reporters shortly before unveiling the Powerwall in a stylish warehouse space outside Los Angeles.

Examples of the sleek device were lined up along one side of the hall. “It looks like a beautiful sculpture on the wall,” Musk said.

All the power for the evening demonstration, attended by several hundred media and tech world participants, came from his new batteries, hooked up to solar panels on the roof, he said.

The device, which will cost $3,500, will go on sale in the United States in late summer, according to a news release. Musk selected TreeHouse, an Austin, Texas startup home improvement store that specializes in curated products and services that promote healthy and sustainable spaces, will be the first American retailer to carry the Powerwall. The aim is to roll it out internationally some time next year.

Germany is seen as a key market for the product — which is about 6 inches thick, 4 feet tall and 3 feet across — because it has among the highest take-up of solar energy in the world, Musk said.

Solar technology could be a boon for poor countries

The Powerwall could also be a huge boon for under-developed regions, where power is often unreliable at best, despite abundant solar energy — and Musk compared the potential to that of the way cellphone technology has expanded.

“It’s analogous to the way mobile leap-frogged landlines,” he said. “This is going to be really great for the poorest communities in the world. This allows you to be completely off grid.”

Musk stressed, however, that moving advanced economies like America away from unsustainable fossil fuels was a key goal. 

“I think we should collectively do something about this,” he said. “We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky, called the sun.”

The Powerwall comes in 10 kilowatt hour weekly cycle and 7 kWh daily cycle models, both of which are guaranteed for 10 years and are sufficient to power most homes during peak evening hours.

The Tesla chief was coy when asked whether Tesla Energy would be a bigger business than Tesla Motors, for which he is best known. He dodged the question.

Last year Tesla announced the construction of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery plant in Nevada, a $5 billion “Gigafactory” with Japanese electronics giant Panasonic. Tesla will run operations, while its Japanese partner will make battery cells destined for the plant and invest in equipment and machinery, according to a joint statement released at that time.

First generation still needs some improvement

Like any new technology, the Powerwall has supporters, detractors and plenty more people — like Dean Frankel, an energy storage analyst for Boston-based Lux Research — in that gray middle area.

“Cheap cells made in the Gigafactory are only part of the puzzle,” Frankel said in a statement. “Unlike electric vehicles, in stationary batteries there is more of a relative cost contribution coming from power electronics, software, and installation. Without more vertical integration — and perhaps even some acquisitions and Gigafactory-like efforts dedicated to inverters — Tesla is limiting its growth potential here.”

According to Lux, Tesla still needs to address a handful of key areas in order to see real success with the Powerwall, including cost reduction beyond lithium-ion cells, offering financing and new residential business models, and working with rather than against the utility companies.

“Tesla has succeeded in pushing down cell and pack costs for stationary energy storage, which will accelerate this market,” Frankel said. “However, power electronics, installation, and widespread availability of financing remain open questions.

"The quicker Tesla can build partnerships, make acquisitions, and invest further to address these issues, the better its chance of hitting its hugely ambitious goal of selling 15 gigawatt hours of stationary energy storage in 2020.”

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015

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