Tesla CTO: Bulk Energy Storage Will Grow Much Faster Than People Expect

At the standing-room-only opening keynote at Intersolar 2015, all the talk was on the future of solar and how energy storage was helping to pave the way for greater adoption of it. Dr. Eicke R. Weber, the director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) opened the show outlining the great progress that solar has made in the past two years by stabilizing supply and demand. “Therefore in 2016, 17, 18 you will see production capacity and the market catch up, which means we should not expect further falling prices for PV modules,” he said, adding “You can expect stable prices and maybe even some modest increases.”

Next up was Tesla Co-Founder and Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel who offered a vision for the future of energy storage and PV. Straubel believes that the energy storage industry is “right at the precipice” of massive cost declines like PV experienced. “The next decade is going to look very different because all of the demand [for energy storage technology] coming from stationary energy storage and from electric vehicles — from many different companies not just Tesla — will change the demand curve and slope in a huge way,” he said. “It’s kind of like the difference between solar used for pocket calculators and satellites VS solar used for buildings. The demand is orders of magnitude higher and puts it on a different trajectory for cost declines.”

To put it in numbers, Straubel believes that the demand for batteries coming from just his company will be something like 35GWh of energy storage by 2020. “That is more lithium-ion capacity than existed in the entire world in 2013.”

Tesla will be demanding some of this battery technology for its Powerpack, a utility-scale battery that the company has recently unveiled. The Powerpack is about 10 times bigger than the Powerwall, which is designed for behind-the-meter residential applications. It is a 100kWh “building block” that is designed to be scaled up into an array.  The Powerpack has a 10-year lifetime.  Straubel showed the audience a conceptual drawing of a theoretical 100MWh/25MW power plant. “There is a clear and present value for transmission and distribution support,” he said.

Straubel closed with some very aggressive predictions that seem more like a wish list than what may actually take place. “In our view battery costs are going to decline much faster than most people expect.” He believes that in less than 10 years nearly all cars will be electric. Also he said bulk storage with batteries will grow faster than predicted. “Our view is that batteries are really going to win” over other energy storage technologies like pumped hydro, compressed air energy storage, even flow batteries, he said. “We are seeing price declines that make a lot of those technologies somewhat stranded,” he added.

“So if we can have solar generation at $0.02-0.03 per kWh and if you can have a levelized cost of a battery that may fall below $0.10 per kWh you suddenly get to have energy that is 100 percent firm and buffered from photovoltaics that is cheaper than fossil energy,” he said. That goal is in “grasping distance” according to Straubel. 

But What About Standards?

Bob Galyen, the Chairman of the SAE International Battery Standards Steering Committee inquired about standardization. “North America has done a deplorable job when it comes to standardization,” he said. “In my presentation on Wednesday I’ll show you 8 different modules and not one of them is made out of the same cell,” he added, asking Straubel directly what Tesla plans to do about helping to get standards in place.

“I’m a bit of a pessimist on how hard it will be to standardize the battery module in every pack,” said Straubel. He said Tesla didn’t want to wait for standardization before it went to market with its products. “I much prefer building products and making things work than sitting on standards committees and trying to get everyone to agree,” he said. But he does agree that standards “would be very powerful” if they could be developed.

RenewableEnergyWorld.com will be exploring the energy storage industry, economics and policy and much more at Intersolar 2015. Stay tuned for more on these important topics.


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Jennifer Runyon has been studying and reporting about the world's transition to clean energy since 2007. As editor of the world's largest renewable energy publication, Renewable Energy World, she observed, interviewed experts about, and reported on major clean energy milestones including Germany's explosive growth of solar PV, the formation and development of the U.S. onshore wind industry, the U.K. offshore wind boom, China's solar manufacturing dominance, the rise of energy storage, the changing landscape for utilities and grid operators and much, much, more. Today, in addition to managing content on POWERGRID International, she also serves as the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH, a globally recognized conference for the transmission and distribution industry. You can reach her at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com

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