Could Tesla's battery storage pack change the way we use energy?

North East experts react to Elon Musk's energy storage technology

Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Concerns remain over the future of the UK's energy supply

Technology forerunner Elon Musk says the new Tesla Powerwall battery storage pack ‘will change the way the world uses energy’. Peter McCusker gauges the views of North East energy storage experts.

THE holy grail of the renewable industry is effective energy storage and the developer of the world’s most sought-after electric car says his new creation provides the answer.

“Our goal here is to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy at the extreme scale,” said high-profile, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk when he launched the Tesla Powerwall in Los Angeles at the end of last month.

Tesla revolutionized the electric vehicle sector when it launched the Tesla Roadster 2008. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and achieve a range of 245 miles per charge of its lithium ion battery,

The Powerwall can store up to 10 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity – around an average family’s daily use – and costs around £2,300. The utility-scale battery consists of 100kWh blocks that can be grouped in packs to more than 10MW/h.

Mr Musk said: “Changing the way the world uses energy is a feasible thing. It’s very important to appreciate that. We’re talking at the terawatt scale. The goal is complete transformation of the entire energy infrastructure of the world.”

Many hope that by storing renewable energy created by the sun or the wind, through solar panels or turbines then they can live off-grid – effectively turning their home, business or property into a self-sufficient power generation and storage unit.

Such ambitions - and the increasing amounts of renewable electricity already being fed into the power grid - are already creating some major challenges to the big six energy firms and transmission operators such as Northern Powergrid.

Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, an electric car company, said: “As solar panels get cheaper and easier to install the only thing keeping consumers tied to the energy grid is a need for electricity when the sun isn’t shining. There’s a universal application for portable energy and storable energy. It’s really just a matter of getting the business model together.”

Here in the North East a £54m trial into how to manage the increasing amount renewables in the network has just completed

The Customer Led Network Revolution (CLNR) is the largest ever initiative of its kind in Europe and featured over 200 electrical energy storage trials.

These concluded that electrical energy storage can be important in sharing the burden during times of peak use – as a demand-side response tool.

Prof Phil Taylor, director of Newcastle University’s Institute for Sustainability, which played a lead role in the CLNR believes the Powerwall can be ‘transformative’.

“Energy storage with solar panels and home balancing, along with smart meters and flexible time of use tariffs empowers people to take an active role in managing their energy use.

“We are seeing major changes in how we consume energy and how the grid is operated and it is not inconceivable that with advances in technology, such as the internet of things, millions of users working together can totally transform the market.”

He said it is inevitable that as the system adopts increasing amounts of renewable energy there will be a need for the scaling up of balancing services and storage.

He added: “As these needs and the costs of storage falls year on year we will reach trigger points where storage will become more and more viable.”

Dr Liz Sidebotham, of the Northern Powergrid and communications manager for CLNR project, has doubts, at this stage, whether the Powerwall is the missing piece in the jigsaw, due to its costs and the intermittency of renewable energy.

She says the total costs, along with add-ons such as inverter protection, may make it prohibitive for many and even ‘in 20 years the costs may still not stack-up’

“While it is an ambitious goal it may not be practical as homes and businesses will still need to be connected to the grid when they are unable to generate power,” she said.

She believes there may be greater adoption in less developed countries, with some further downward price movements.

“In places with no grid electricity it could play a major role, but the price points still look too high in the developed world.”

She believes the impacts of falling battery prices are more likely to lead to a greater roll-out of electric vehicles and electric heat pumps.

The price point given for the Tesla battery is less than half of similar devices in Japan, Australia and Germany.

Chris Dent, senior lecturer in Energy Systems Modelling in the School of Engineering and Computer Sciences at Durham University and a member of its world leading Durham Energy Institute believes the starting price for the Powerwall is ‘pretty good for a system with a 10 year guarantee if it lives up to its promises’.

He said: “At the moment storage systems are generally not cost effective without subsidy, and the future of energy storage, to a large part, will depend on how quickly costs can come down.”

He said storage deployment could be encouraged by Government policies to support community generation over centralised transmission networks, but that there is an important debate over the benefits of local energy generation versus the economies of scale provided by centralised supply.

However he went on to say that domestic customers, with the ambitions to become self-sufficient, would not be able to disconnect form the grid entirely.

“There will still be a need for a grid connection if something goes wrong with their domestic system and this means there will still be the associated costs to pay for the grid connection.

“The Powerwall won’t change behaviour much initially, but as costs come down then it might,” he said.

The CLNR aims to help policy-makers determine how future energy systems can work, as we move from a top-down, fit and forget network to a more flexible one which can cope with a two- way flow of electricity and a more active participation of consumers helped by smart meters.

This is presenting major challenges for utilities and grid operators and in Germany – the country with the greatest deployment and appetite for renewable energy – the country’s two major utilities E.On and RWE are feeling the pain.

There is talk of introducing a levy on customers with solar panels who feed their power into the grid and there is mounting pressure on the German Government to establish a capacity market similar to the one recently created in the UK, which pays power stations to be on standby when the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing.

Just days after Powerwall was launched, Tesla reported that it has sold out until mid-2016.

Mr Musk said it had received more than 38,000 reservations for the Powerwall, which includes roughly 2,800 businesses looking to purchase the commercial version called the Powerpack.

“The response has been overwhelming. Like, crazy,” Mr Musk said. “We’re basically sold out.”

Batteries are one of a number of storage methods currently being tried and whether this will be the technology that transforms the market remains to be seen (see panel).

Prof Taylor emphasised the need to ensure lithium is mined responsibly and that the lithium-ion batteries are recycled or disposed of in an environmentally responsible way

Tesla is not the only one in the market and here in the UK Gloucestershire-based Ecotricity, is experimenting with its Black Box battery unit which will be tested in 100 homes this year.

Emanating from California Tesla’s low carbon Powerwall has a similar stylish appearance to the sleek i-product roster of fellow Silicon Valley residents Apple.

Apple has shown that style can go hand in hand with substance and the hope of many in the low carbon world is that Tesla is able to follow suit.

The Electricity Storage Network (ESN) trade association, whose members include the National Grid, has urged the government to set a clear target to install an additional 2GW of storage capacity by 2020.

In 2013 Chancellor George Osborne said he wanted to make the UK a “world leader” in energy storage, hailing the technology as key to boosting the market for electric vehicles and enhancing the UK’s energy security.

In that respect the UK Government has been active in supporting the development of storage having recently invested in a number of technologies, while the most common existing form is pump storage – or hydro-electric power.

The UK has 3GW of pumped hydro storage from four plants which see water released to turn turbines, creating electricity when demand is high.

The CLNR trial deployed six batteries varying in size from 100kW, to 5MW across the North East. While they have drawbacks in being noisy, large and heavy the trial proved they could be successfully deployed when demand is high.

The Government has also awarded an £8m contract to a partnership of Viridor Waste Management and Highview Power Storage, of Slough, to fund the development of a technology to store air in a liquid format, which can then be used to supply electricity at times of high demand.

Electricity is used to take in air, remove the CO2 and water vapour, which would otherwise freeze solid. The remaining air, mostly nitrogen, is chilled to -190C and turns to liquid and stored.

When demand for power rises, the liquid is warmed and as it vapourises, the expanding gas drives a turbine to produce electricity.

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