We’re always striving to move away from coal and oil to power our world, but Tesla Motors is in a full on sprint, and they want to share their dream with the world. We have all heard the news about the Tesla Powerwall but without a knowledge of batteries it is a bit hard to understand why the breakthrough is so exciting. Let’s take a minute to break it down!
Solar has always been a bit of a pain to manage and set up, but Tesla’s new Powerwall changes all of it. The Powerwall is sleek and efficient while completely erasing the issues of current-generation solar power storage. Up until recently most solar battery back-ups were a string of 4-12 Lead-Acid car batteries to help bridge the gap between peak solar (When your panels get the best sun) and peak electrical demand, allowing you to light your house at night without scraping out the extra change to do so. Some have even upped the battery count to cut out their electrical bill completely.
Why The Old Options Just Don’t Cut it!
Using a bunch of car batteries for solar is a good option, however, it requires some dangerous maintenance and can cause serious damage to you and your environment.
Lead-acid batteries need to be kept full of electrolyte (Sulphuric Acid in Water) to keep the battery performing its best. Many go for “AGM” lead-acid batteries instead to reduce risk in maintenance, but these are much more expensive.
AGM stands for Absorbent Glass Mat. It’s there to soak up the acid solution and prevent it from physically spilling if knocked over.
Even past the maintenance issues, Lead-acid has drawbacks. They work well with solar only because they get the chance to charge and discharge throughout the day which is essential to the batteries life. Even a week with no charge on a lead-acid battery will dramatically reduce its charge. In the case of solar, this is wasted solar power.
Lead-acid loses its charge over time due to the internal electrolysis of the electrolyte (Electricity + H20 = Hydrogen and oxygen gas) and the ambient discharge of whatever material sits under it. Concrete and Metal will do this easily which is why it’s common practice to keep unused batteries on top of something like a wood shipping pallet. In your car’s case, it could lose capacity through the metal of the car, although the entire car is grounded back to the negative post of the battery making this effect go much slower. That plastic tray under there is actually to catch any acid that manages to escape from the battery, so it doesn’t corrode all over your engine bay. Regardless, your battery will absolutely die over time in a car that sits around without being ran.
The Tesla Powerwall Overcomes Major Issues
The Tesla Powerwall has none of these issues – It’s a bank of Lithium-Ion batteries. Not much different from the idea of a large water cooled phone charger, although owning a Powerwall solely to charge your phone is massive overkill. Or not, I won’t judge you.
Before I go into how this works I’d like to explain how reliable lithium-ion batteries are.
Lithium Ion ( Li-Io ) is built in a way where catastrophic failure results in excess heat and an inner seal busting open to safely vent any pressure that might have built up inside. Lithium Polymer, on the other hand, has a tendency to start fires when poked a bit too hard with something sharp.
Usually, Lithium Ion batteries come in prismatic (the flat removable battery in some phones) and Cylindrical, much like the AA battery would be shaped. These cylindrical lithium ion batteries are the most popular in the world. The 18650 (18mm wide, 650mm tall – about twice the size of a AA) is the standardized size. I can almost guarantee that this cell in its many makes and models is present in every mobile lithium-ion application, save for a very few super modern slim laptops. three good examples are lithium drill batteries, most every other laptop battery you’ll ever see, and (at the time of posting) all available lithium golf cart batteries.
Lithium solar battery backups don’t have the issues that a lead-acid backup would. Lithium Ion can sit fully charged for months on end with little to no loss of capacity and don’t require a minute of maintenance after it’s been installed. As for total capacity? Lithium Ion has the highest energy density (power it can hold in a specific size and weight) out of most other commercial energy storage systems available. This means that this Powerwall is much lighter and much more powerful than its solar-bank predecessors. Finer details of the Tesla Powerwall can be found on the Tesla website here.
The Commercial Powerpack!
Tesla also offers a variant of the Powerwall called the Powerpack , which is essentially a power-wall built to use the modules that they place inside of their vehicles. The main change of the “power-pack” is that it’s designed more as an industrial / commercial backup battery to help offset peak times and loads, which means it “shaves off” most of the electrical demand at times of the day where the company using it would otherwise be paying a good portion more. It has much less focus on the solar implementation, but it’s technical specifications show that it’s just as capable as the official powerwall for solar use.
Due to the fine-tuned supply/demand prices that today’s power companies implement, using Tesla’s Powerpack is an incredibly effective way to avoid up-ending the company budget on its power bills. They’re built to order and can be scaled up to a virtually limitless amount of stored energy, although they resemble the size of a refrigerator rather than something that hangs on the wall. The Powerpack uses the same modules as their cars, which means that those who want to start out small can slowly and easily expand their storage capacity over time.
It goes without saying that such high-powered battery backups are invaluable to industries that would need constant power, specifically the medical industry. Hospitals could utilize these backups in conjunction with generators as a “Plan C” for power outages, which could prove essential in saving countless lives in the rare scenarios where hospitals find themselves relying on backup power. Alternately, these are a big attraction to data centers around the world seeing as a power loss could end up with ludicrous amounts of money lost in damage from an outage.
Coincidentally, all of the batteries for Teslas cars and their Powerwall are large arrays of these 18650 lithium-ion batteries manufactured by Panasonic and shipped overseas to us, although plans for a Battery Manufacturing Plant in Sparks, Nevada will make all of Tesla’s products cheaper without cutting any performance – which could eventually dethrone Coal and Oil as the power production standard in the U.S. in favor for solar and wind – because now we can actually store the power that our green technology brings us.
A bright looking future indeed, but we’ll all be waiting awhile to see this possibility come to fruition. Whether or not it ever will is anyone’s guess, but optimism makes sense here. Mr. Musk is putting his money where his mouth is and he’s absolutely not slowing down for anything.
Written by Alexandre Sheets
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