To be completely honest — and this is coming from the biggest admitted Tesla fanboy in the Southeastern United States — I just don’t really get the point with Tesla’s new Home Battery. Maybe it’s a West Coast thing. Like Katy Perry, 26-inch rims on Jeep Wranglers, or measles. But something about Elon’s newest non-automotive venture just does not make sense in this neighborhood.

Essentially, it’s a cool-running, lightweight, compact battery pack. But here’s the twist: It’s for your...HOUSE! Wait. House? Yes, just what everyone always wanted and could never do without: A big, rechargeable battery pack in their homes. It’s amazing nobody ever thought of this before, considering the fact that people have been doing exactly the same thing with cheap, sealed lead-acid batteries for the better part of a century now. Yeah. So, what’s the point here? Why does Tesla think this newest non-automotive venture will reach a market that’s had its needs met with cheaper battery technology for a hundred years or more? What’s the assumption here, Elon? Are houses suddenly worried about their power-to-weight ratio?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Or maybe Elon’s assumed assumptions aren’t the question here.

Continue reading for the rest of the story

The System

Tesla Home Batteries
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Elon Musk has never made any secret of his intentions as far as reaching out of the automotive market and into the energy storage business. Tesla has already broken ground on a massive new lithium-ion battery factory outside of Reno, Nevada. The "Gigafactory" will hire 6,500 employees over the next 10 years, and Musk says he’ll be starting workers at $22.97 an hour, and paying $25 on average. You know, because he’s not an evil jerk, or named "Walton."

Clearly then, Mr. Stark is serious about the potential of energy storage technologies, and must see some value in lithium-ion specifically. Right now, li-ion batteries are ridiculously expensive, but the price has been dropping yearly, thanks in part to efforts like the Gigafactory. Many experts predict that at this rate, it will soon easily rival NiMH or NiCad in terms of price per unit storage. That’s especially true for Tesla itself, which currently sources its li-ion batteries from Panasonic. Once the Reno facility is up and running, they expect to see a massive 30 percent drop in the price of li-ions.

They expect to see a massive 30 percent drop in the price of li-ions

Given all of that, the Tesla Home Battery might start to make a bit more sense from a business perspective. If it goes into full production, the Home Battery could provide a handy outlet for the Gigafactory’s product. As of right now, the Home Battery is an exploratory thing, and Elon makes no bones about its experimental nature. He told Forbes:

"We are trying to figure out what would be a cool stationary (battery) pack. Some will be like the Model S pack: something flat, 5 inches off the wall, wall mounted, with a beautiful cover, an integrated bi-directional inverter, and plug and play."

So, what are the applications and benefits here?

Those with solar panel installations could use the battery to store extra energy collected during the day, and run off of that energy in the late afternoon as the sun wanes. That also happens to be peak demand time for electricity, when it’s most expensive. Running off the Tesla battery for a bit will save the homeowner money — and if implemented on a large enough scale, potentially drive down the peak-hour cost of electricity for everyone. Or at least reduce the draw on the power grid.

Many power companies like those in California offer hefty rebates on these kinds of installations, often upward of 50 percent of the cost of the battery. They also allow users to "sell" the extra energy collected back into the grid at peak demand times, effectively de-centralizing power distribution and making every solar-equipped house a mini power station. Redistribution of power? How wonderfully...socialist.

I see what you’re doing there, Mr. Musk.

So, the whole idea does come off as slightly pointless, with no real future in sight. Unless...

Of course, all this comes at a hefty premium right now: A system capable of storing 15 kWh is projected to cost a whopping $13,000. Some of that’s down to the current high cost of the batteries themselves, which should go down over the next few years. But another huge portion is from the inverter required to change the battery’s DC power to household AC, and back.

Overall, a pretty brilliant idea... {}if you have solar cells on your house. And {}if your electric company offers a rebate or electricity sell-back, and {}if the peak-hour rates justify it. But at $13 grand, considering cheap lead-acid batteries can and will do the same thing, the whole venture comes off as kind of...stupid.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to spend $13 grand on a "Home Battery," I’d prefer it be a little bigger. And maybe set on a rolling chassis of some kind; preferably motorized for easy portability. Maybe I’d put some seats on it, build a body around the seats, and install a really nice interior with air conditioning. Basically, I’d just buy a Tesla S.

So, the whole idea does come off as slightly pointless, with no real future in sight.


They’re Laying the Groundwork

In another article on this very subject (What’s REALLY Stopping the Electric Car) I spent quite a while looking at the three things upon which the future of electric automobiles truly hang:

  • The ability to quickly swap battery packs, like you would with cordless power tools.
  • Modularity of battery packs: Breaking them down into smaller pieces so you could replace the entire battery (or just a few worn-out cells) with either the newest high-tech batteries, or even cheap, old sealed lead-acid units.
  • Standardization: Making all of the individual battery modules the same size, using the same mounting system, industry-wide.

Full disclosure: I actually wrote that section a few days before Tesla introduced the Home Battery. The whole paragraph on the Home Battery in that article was kind of a last-minute ad-lib. But, it’s an important one, because it seems to confirm that perhaps secretly, Elon’s quietly planning ahead to meet those criteria. Evidence:

  • Tesla already introduced a quick-change battery rack, capable of swapping a Tesla’s battery pack out in 30 seconds or less.
  • A "Home Battery" would work quite well as both a spare for Tesla automobiles, and everything else mentioned above.
  • Look at the individual battery "modules" in the Home Battery box. A bunch of small, identical boxes, mounted to quick-release frames inside of a larger box.
  • Those "flat-pack" modules in the Home Battery are identical to the individual modules that already fill a Tesla’s battery pack.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see where this is going.

I wouldn't put any degree of idiot past anyone, even if he is Iron Man

Viewed in that light, Tesla’s Home Battery might not be so much of a mildly useful, application-specific science experiment — it may well be an experiment in the application of modular, standardized battery packs. Dual-purpose power storage that can gather solar energy during the day and transfer it to your car at night. Either by battery-to-battery transfer, or by physically swapping out the modular packs.

That would make every house its own "supercharger" station, using loads of the batteries Tesla will soon produce at its massive, new Gigafactory.

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s entirely possible I’m giving a billionaire with billions more to make a little too much credit here. And I wouldn’t put any degree of idiot past anyone, even if he is Iron Man — but history thus far has proven Elon Musk to be anything but short-sighted. This is the same guy who founded PayPal and SpaceX (a space transport company), conceptualized the "Solar City," and brought us a new vision of transportation called the "hyperloop." This is a guy with his eye on the very long game, and everyone who deals with him knows it.

Is it so crazy then to imagine that this visionary billionaire’s newest "venture" might just be testing the waters? Working out a few kinks? That it might just be a beta test for something much bigger to come?

Call me an unrepentant fanboy if you like...but my reality thus far has betrayed a lot of initial assumptions about it.

And I get a feeling this may just be the latest one.

Richard Rowe
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