WIll Tesla’s Home Battery Challenge The Grid?

Photo courtesy of general Physics Laboratory via Flickr. 

With batteries and sustainable energy solutions getting better and better, it was only a matter of time before the two combined to power homes and businesses in a revolutionary way.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk — electric car architect, Hyperloop designer, and potential Mars pioneer — has unveiled the Powerwall: a home battery capable of storing wind and solar power for continuous use, with a capacity of 7 ($3,000) or 10kWh ($3,500).

Musk himself has described the reception to this unveiling “crazy off the hook.” But is this slick battery a game changer, or just the first pawn in the larger energy game?

What is it?

The Powerwall is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery which, as the name suggests, attaches right to your wall to power your home. Tesla has experience developing Electric Vehical (EV) batteries for years, but is just now targeting the residential solar marketplace.

Tesla’s  batteries, part of its new initiative,Tesla Energy, are like lithium-ion car batteries, but larger and designed for home storage. They are Internet-connected and can be managed by Tesla from afar.

The battery will help solar users ease reliance on the grid by storing energy for later — like when energy rates peak, or in case of blackouts. Tesla announced that as of May 6, there have already been 38,000 Powerwall pre-orders.

Aside from the Powerwall, there is also the Powerpack, its utility-scale big sister for use as backup storage instead of daily utility.

Who is it for?

Statistically, probably not you.

The Powerwall will be beneficial, currently, for two types of people: those with obscenely high electricity bills, and people living in places with an unreliable electrical grid.

As an example, Hawaiians pay an exorbitant amount for electricity; Californians do as well to a lesser degree. States like these where there is plenty of sun and solar panels are already popular could, in theory, be a fine market for the battery.

Those already off the grid or relying on solar energy entirely could pay off the entirety of the Powerwall in just over four years. But for the average American, that time could outlast the product’s 10 year warranty by six years.

Analysts say the battery doesn’t make economic sense unless you are off the grid completely, or have solar panels that already provide all your electricity needs.

On the other hand, the batteries could be great for people in the developing world that rely on diesel generators and are prone to blackouts.

On the other hand, the batteries could be great for people in the developing world that rely on diesel generators and are prone to blackouts.

What’s not so great about it?

Though cheap, it’s much costlier when you take instillation into account; all together, the Powerwall could put you out closer to $7,140, or $5,000 for a nine-year lease from SolarCity. (This is still incredibly low in comparison to competitor prices.)

It also has very limited output power, able of only providing 2kw of continuous energy — enough to power no more than one device before maxing out. This means that users would need to buy multiple batteries to provide power during outages for more than several hours.

Critics argue that despite all of the hype, the Powerwall is in practice a little bit wimpy, silly, and a distraction from Tesla’s electric car business.

Others worry that if Tesla batteries do get solar users off the grid, it will hurt the already crumbling infrastructure and put pressure on those still reliant on it.

What does this change?

The Powerwall could be a small step toward energy independence, especially for those already living partially or totally off-grid. For the rest of us, it may have little bearing for years.

The PowerPack on the other hand, as many have pointed out, could make an even bigger impact, sooner. The utility-scale battery is so cost-efficient, it could allow for industrial-scale solar and wind storage, eliminating the need for new nuclear power plants.

At the end of the day, Tesla isn’t quite a dragon-like threat to the castle that is the grid. But given interest and potential, it could be the first stone to truly weakens the walls.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert