One of the common refrains about solar and wind is that the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. In short, solar and wind can't always provide energy when consumers need it. Oftentimes, that means that solar and wind have been consigned as a supplemental resource.
It also has caused many problems between early adopters of these renewables and the power companies as they fight over the price of sales to the grid (net metering) versus charging solar users extra to help support the grid. The problem has been the system and technology simply hasn't been able to generate excess power and then be able to store it for when it is needed. That means the power generation system is sized for the worst case, peak demand scenario.
Enter Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Telsa, the high-end electric car manufacturer. He said last week that he wanted the entire United States to convert to batteries — for home, office, and business use. Furthermore, he wanted the entire country to fuel those batteries with solar power. That would mean that no more power lines, and no more massive outages.
Now, many would think that was an amazing futuristic projection. However, Musk knows about batteries. He's also the cousin to the CEO of, and a major investor in, SolarCity — a firm that's leasing rooftops for solar panels and then selling the electricity to the roof-owners. So, when he says he wants to stop using coal, oil, and natural gas and move to solar and wind, he's worth listening to. He says the U.S. can eliminate the entire grid.
Musk is now selling the Tesla Powerwall, a lithium ion battery pack that costs $3,500. It would take about three of them to power a whole home, but they could be hooked up to a house with solar panels and the panels could be used to charge the batteries which could in turn eliminate the need to be on the grid at all.
He actually thinks it's possible to eliminate all fossil fuel use in the United States — he said that it would take 2 billion battery units to do it but that equals the number of cars driving on the planet today. He believes that if we can have 2 billion cars, we can have 2 billion batteries.
He plans to develop a "gigafactory" in Nevada to make these batteries and says there will be more, which could change everything about the U.S. economy and environment. Have all the questions been answered about how much this would cost and how long these batteries will last? Not yet, but it could lead to some really interesting and positive changes for the planet and our economy. It looks like Tesla was merely the wrapper and the battery technology inside may be the true gift. I, for one, will be watching.
Arthur Siegal is the chair of the Environmental/Energy Practice Group of the Southfield-based law firm Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss PC.