Tesla Batteries and a Lost Scholarship
I originally shared this on LinkedIn in May 2015. Preserving it here.
Tonight, Elon Musk made the announcement that Tesla will begin selling home and utility-scale battery packs this year, 2015. This is the most meaningful shove toward a better future that I can imagine — in fact, I wrote the following essay two years ago about this very subject. I was applying to a scholarship, which I didn’t get. I guess I wasn’t being realistic… Well, the world just took an impressive and highly-visible step yet on the path toward sustainable energy, and I was WAY off on the timeline. I’m so glad to have been so wrong.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it.
Henry Ford is famously misquoted as saying “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.’” The point is: the advances we make today are constrained only by our imaginations, and innovation is nothing if not unpredictable. Let’s face it — that’s what makes engineering exciting, because it sure isn’t the math. Engineering is the applied science of forward thinking. Prompts like this are what we live for; they give us permission to dream. The past one hundred years are irrefutably the most productive in the proud history of engineering. In my opinion, some of the most important innovations of the past century are, chronologically, the jet engine (1930s), the nuclear reactor (1942), the Internet (1969), the personal computer (1973), and of course, the Keurig single cup coffee brewer (1998). If the next twenty-five year period yields even one breakthrough on par with any of these, my children may one day say things to the effect of “I can’t imagine growing up in 2013. Can you believe Dad (that’s me) didn’t have a Keurig meal synthesizer?” Jokes aside, I do have a more realistic vision for the not-so-distant future that would be absolutely game changing. What the world desperately needs is utility-level energy storage; big, energy-dense, portable, rechargeable batteries.
We live in an exciting time for energy. The cost of solar panels is fast falling, horizontal drilling has made natural gas unthinkably affordable, wind farms are sprouting up all throughout Texas, and that’s just perusing this Sunday’s paper. However, all generation methods, traditional and emergent, share a common pitfall: they rely on demand modeling. At the present, we use the majority of our energy the moment it is created. That means the energy powering the light bulb above you is being produced right now in a power plant nearby. To ensure that we never fail power that light, we produce extra energy in the neighborhood of seven percent above daily need (Vartabedian, 2013). This necessary overproduction introduces a tremendous inefficiency that is taken as a matter-of-fact. The wide-scale implementation of utility batteries would ax this handicap, allowing for energy production to near-perfectly match consumption. When a battery runs low, top it off like a tank of gas, and not one joule more. Rinse, wash, repeat. If each building or neighborhood were outfitted with a utility battery, it would mean dependable efficiency for that block. Practically speaking, the general population would never notice a difference in their day-to-day lives from this increased efficiency.
Another advantage of utility batteries is that their implementation would nullify the intermittency issues now vexing solar and wind generation. Currently, solar and wind plants have to be backed up by a traditional source (Miller, 2013) because the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow in sync with our energy usage — those scoundrels. Utility batteries would mitigate this uncertainty by allowing us to charge batteries at nature’s convenience. The ability to store the sun’s rays for a rainy day reduces the demand for coal and gas powered electric plants. This, in turn, would markedly curtail carbon emissions. In a society where green energy is synonymous with ‘sexy’, it’s an obvious selling point. Furthermore, the renewable implications would be perhaps most significant in rapidly developing countries such as China and India that are notorious for pollution at unsafe levels, which brings me to my most compelling case.
The most important and immediate consequences of the invention of utility batteries will be in developing countries. At the moment, aid in the Third World depends largely on gas-powered generators for reliable energy. The positive potential for batteries in these locales is limitless — coupled with solar arrays, they could absolutely revolutionize the Third World. One sufficiently energy-dense battery could provide an entire village with reliable medicine, refrigeration and water purification. Children could be educated alongside their international peers in virtual classrooms on laptops charged by night. Teenagers in remote areas of Belize or Kenya could learn math and science on par with anyone around the world. The ingenuity of billions of people currently off-the-grid could go on to benefit the rest of the world as they come online and upload new discoveries and inventions, designs and artworks. Just think: an eighth-grader in Burundi could devise an water capture system built out of household items, and two days later it’s being adopted by a family in rural Guinea. What powers this interaction? The Internet, which in turn is powered by big battery installed next to hutch back in 2037.
At the end of the day, I can’t be sure this advancement is probable or even possible — it is only necessary. As of now I can only hope to see the utility battery, and preferably with a shred of my youth yet intact. If it comes down to it, I may just take a swing at it myself. That is how strongly I believe that the utility battery would facilitate a positive fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship to energy. Domestically, the power grid could become compartmentalized, more efficient, and more dependable. Our energy production could come within a stone’s throw of consumption. Solar and wind generation would become more viable sources of power, intermittency no longer a wrench in the cogs. This increased practicality of renewable resources could result in cleaner air the globe over, benefitting billions in densely polluted areas such as China and India. Finally, the most meaningful impact of the utility battery would be in the Third World, where health and education would both be improved. In brief, it is really, really hard to understate the benefits of an energy-dense and portable battery. I appreciate your time and consideration and look forward to discussing your partnership with my future venture, Behemoth Battery™.
Miller, J. (n.d.). Why Expanded Alternative Energy Increases the Need for Natural Gas | The Energy Collective.News & Analysis on Energy Policy, Renewables, Innovation & Climate Change | The Energy Collective . Retrieved September 14, 2013, from http://theenergycollective.com/jemillerep/178096/expanded-wind-and-solar-power-increase-need-natural-gas
Vartabedian, R. (n.d.). Renewable energy increase will require use of more fossil fuels — Los Angeles Times. Featured Articles From The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 14, 2013, from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/09/local/la-me-unreliable-power-20121210