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Elon Musk’s Powerwall is going to revolutionise global energy storage

Late on Thursday 30th April,2015 - the glitzy electric car company Tesla Motors, run by billionaire Elon Musk, ceased to be just a car company.

As was widely expected, Tesla announced that it is offering a home battery product, which people can use to store energy from their solar panels or to backstop their homes against blackouts, and also larger scale versions that could perform similar roles for companies or even parts of the grid. The battery, says Tesla, “increases the capacity for a household’s solar consumption, while also offering backup functionality during grid outages.” At the same time, the company said it will producing larger batteries for businesses and utility companies — listing projects with Texas-based Oncor and Southern California Edison.

The anticipation leading up to this announcement has been intense — words like “zeitgeist” are being used — which itself is one reason why the moment for “energy storage,” as energy wonks put it to describe batteries and other technologies that save energy for later use, may finally be arriving. Prices for batteries have already been dropping, but with Tesla adding a “coolness factor” to the equation, people might even be willing to stretch their finances to buy one.

The truth, though, is Tesla isn’t the only company in the battery game, and whatever happens with Tesla, this market is expected to grow. A study by GTM Research and the Energy Storage Association earlier this year found that while storage remains relatively niche — the market was sized at just $128 million in 2014 — it also grew 40 percent last year, and three times as many installations are expected this year. By 2019, GTM Research forecasts, the overall market will have reached a size of $ 1.5 billion.

“The trend is more and more players being interested in the storage market,” says GTM Research’s Ravi Manghani. Tesla, he says, has two unique advantages — it is building a massive battery-making “gigafactory” which should drive down prices, and it is partnered with solar installer Solar City (Musk is Solar City’s chairman), which “gives Tesla access to a bigger pool of customers, both residential and commercial, who are looking to deploy storage with or without solar.”

The major upshot of more and cheaper batteries and much more widespread energy storage could, in the long term, be a true energy revolution — as well as a much greener planet. Battery storage can dramatically change the way we get power and help to integrate more renewables into the grid. Almost everybody focusing the Tesla story has homed in on home batteries – but in truth, the biggest impact of storage could occur at the level of the electricity grid as a whole.

For more power storage doesn’t just hold out the promise of a more reliable grid — it means one that can rely less on fossil fuels and more on renewable energy sources like wind and, especially, solar, which vary based on the time of day or the weather. Or as a 2013 Department of Energy report put it, “storage can ‘smooth’ the delivery of power generated from wind and solar technologies, in effect, increasing the value of renewable power.”

“Storage is a game changer,” said Tom Kimbis, vice president of executive affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, in a statement. That’s for many reasons, according to Kimbis, but one of them is that “grid-tied storage helps system operators manage shifting peak loads, renewable integration, and grid operations.”

In summary - cheaper, more easily available energy storage helps at the scale of the power grid, and also at the level of our homes, to further advantage cleaner, renewable energy. So if the economics of storage are finally starting to line up — and its business side to ramp up — that can only be good news for the planet.

Source: Mooney, C 2015, 'Why Tesla’s announcement is such a big deal: The coming revolution in energy storage', WashingtonPost, 1 May 2015, p1, viewed 01 May 2015

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