Elon Musk’s Recipe To Power The World With Renewables, Part 2 (Local Solar + Storage)

Environment

In a previous article, I covered a recipe Elon Musk gave us for powering the world with renewables. He gave the overall plan, but obviously couldn’t give full details on the plan at the local level. During another part of the Q1 earnings call, he gave a lot more detail on how the local level can successfully transition to renewables, and how Tesla’s recent decision to not sell solar without storage is part of it.

In this article, I’ll be focusing on this part of the call (the embedded video below is already set to start at the right time):

Recent price changes on solar panels and the Tesla Solar Roof have been a challenge for people buying them, but demand is strong and won’t hurt Tesla’s installation pace. They’ve also started selling solar installations only with batteries, which is another thing that’s gotten mixed reactions.

As Elon explained his reasoning why, it’s clear that it’s a key part of his overall strategy to “accelerate the transition to renewable energy,” while making Tesla’s product portfolio simpler. There will only be one product (solar + storage) and not a big menu of configurations.

Benefits For Tesla

One of the biggest advantages for the company is that it makes installations much simpler. Instead of having to make every installation a custom “work of art” that integrates the house’s panel and everything inside, they can do basically the same thing for every house (electrically speaking). This is true because they’re able to install the inverter and storage between the grid’s connection and the big breaker for the house.

Ultimately, this means that every house looks the same electrically to Tesla’s equipment, with four paths for electricity to follow. There’s power coming from the solar cells, power coming to or from the grid, power to or from the battery pack, and power can go into the house’s main breaker to be used. With every installation being simplified like this, problems are far fewer, permitting is much quicker and simpler, and costs are lower.

This means Tesla will be able to install more solar setups faster.

Benefits For The Customer & Grid

The solar industry has been really good at convincing people that they didn’t need energy storage, and this has led to many customers not ordering storage. If you can sell excess daytime power to the grid and buy it back at night (possibly for cheaper), the grid is serving as a battery of sorts, but it’s not a very good one.

One problem is that the grid can go down, as we’ve seen in California and Texas. If you’re strictly running grid-tied solar, your power goes out at the same time as the rest of the grid, even if there’s full sun on your panels. With battery storage and solar that can isolate themselves from the grid, you can still get power even if nobody else in the neighborhood is getting it.

Musk also raised the possibility of working with utilities to use all of the battery packs to help the grid out when it needs a boost. Individual customers would have to consent to being part of this, but the end result from consenting customers is that a virtual power plant can be there as part of the overall grid.

In the event of a peak power demand event like we saw in Texas this winter, this could save the day. They whole thing failed because supply fell behind demand, so people had to be shut off to keep the grid stable. With enough residential Powerwalls working together, it’s possible to stabilize the grid and prevent many outages.

The Future Probably Requires This For Energy Resilience

There are several challenges grids face that make this a necessity, Musk says.

First off, there’s the addition of all the new electric vehicles onto the grid. He says this will lead to utilities struggling to feed the grid. From what I’ve read, this won’t happen all the time because most people charge EVs during the night when there is still a lot of spare capacity on grids, but not all drivers will do this, so he may be right. If many EV owners don’t take from the grid because they have their own solar + storage, while spare Powerwall capacity can stabilize the grid for people who aren’t their own utility, this can go a long way to solving the issue.

The issue is more urgent as we move away from fossil fuels for heating. Elon says that adding electric vehicles plus adding electric heating triples our current electricity needs, further straining the grid.

Another factor that will strain grids is climate change. As extreme events like we saw in Texas and California become more common, we will see many more electricity supply events cause human suffering. Taking care of your own family individually while also contributing to keeping the grid functioning for neighbors is a key thing solar + storage can do.

By adding all this grid capacity in a distributed manner, utilities won’t have to install nearly as many new power plants, grid-scale energy storage, and upgrades to powerlines/substations to feed 3× the daily energy to everyone. This keeps costs to everyone down.

Tying It All Together

In places like Alaska where you can’t get good winter solar, the strategy in Part 1 of this two-part series comes into play. Solar + storage is great in places where it’s feasible, but won’t be as potent at higher latitudes. That’s why it’s necessary to install renewables wherever they’ll work well year round, and send that power (using efficient high-voltage DC transmission lines) to those other places.

As was mentioned in Part 1, none of this at any level requires new technology or exotic materials like room-temperature superconductors. It’s all current technology that’s not only ready to get started with, but on the market and being put in TODAY. There are no shortages of raw materials, either, as stationary storage solutions can use a less energy dense battery.

By building a wider grid that enables renewables at all latitudes and beefing it up with distributed generation and storage, we can have a grid that’s both cleaner than today’s and far more reliable. All we need to do is get production up and get the job done.

Featured image: wind and solar farms near Nutt, New Mexico. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.


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