Thursday 8 December 2016

Will your next home have batteries included?

Published 26/05/2015 | 17:46

The Tesla Powerwall could revolutionise how Irish people power their homes.

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We’ve all read about CEO of Tesla Elon Musk’s plan for domestic energy use with the announcement of Tesla’s Powerwall battery earlier this month. But how could this innovation impact on Irish homes and the Irish kitchen of the future?

We are all invested in the idea of renewable energy for our homes. It seems Ireland, and particularly rural Ireland is the perfect market for the Tesla Powerwall. We are a small island nation with virtually no carbon resources, we languish almost at the bottom of the scale for energy independence. According to EU’s statistic body Eurostat, Ireland only generated 11% of its electricity in 2011, with only Malta, Luxemburg and Cyprus fairing worse.

Of course, the future looks considerably brighter, Ireland is blessed with abundant renewable natural resources in wind and wave power. The problem with these sources of power is not that they are not abundant, it is quite easy to generate electricity from the wind, the sun, the waves and geothermal sources. The trick is to transport, store and provide that energy where and when it is needed.

Carbon fuels are easier to store and transport, they have a longer, more stable shelf life. Until now the challenges facing mass adoption of renewable energy sources in Ireland have been associated with the relative instability (changeable) nature of our resources. We don’t have that many dependable sunny days to be able to predict how much solar energy will impact on our power consumption. It’s all well and good generating electricity on the rare sunny days we have, but unless you can store that energy or feed it back to the grid, it’s difficult to get real payback on a consumer’s investment to make it worthwhile.

That’s exactly the need Tesla’s Powerwall is looking to satisfy. Batteries are nothing new, we’ve been using them for decades, but the key to the Powerwall is not its basic concept, but how it solves the issues facing Li-ion batteries. The Powerwall is a Lithium-Ion battery, lithium ions move from the negative electrode to the positive electrode during discharge and back when charging. You’re already using one in your phone, your laptop and if Tesla has its way there’ll be one powering your home too. The problem with Lithium-Ion batteries has been, until now is that they are they are slow and expensive to make, the costs get passed on to the consumer. They also generate a lot of heat, when they are charging or being discharged and we’ve all heard stories of mobiles and laptops catching fire. It makes it difficult to pack too many battery cores together.

Figuring out how to manage these characteristics is the real beauty of what Tesla has done. Instead of using one big, clunky battery core tending to overheat, they pack in thousands of coin sized cores, string them together with a liquid cooling system and segregate them in individual compartments so that if a fire does start, it won’t spread.

The home battery concept looks a perfect fit for Ireland, if you are running appliances while the wind is blowing and the sun is out, your turbine and solar panels will bypass the battery and feed your kitchen directly. If the battery is full and your renewable sources are still harvesting energy, it will be fed back into the grid. However, imagine, it’s one of those drawn out, endlessly grey Irish summers and you’re not getting enough sunlight to power your home. You can set your battery to charge from the grid in the cheaper off-peak times, which you can use any time you want.

Our current fossil fuel dependency just doesn’t make sense and is not sustainable either in terms of economics or the environment, a more energy independent future is the logical progression. That independence however, will most likely start at an individual level, well before growing out to be adopted on a national scale. It will be facilitated to be consumer electronics that place fewer demands on a home’s electricity supply. Cleaner, greener and more economic appliances, especially in the kitchen have a large part to play in this.

Major strides forward made by Tesla, and for sure there is a long way to go before mass adoption, but perhaps their great achievement is making seem so feasible. We can now realistically imagine what it will be like to have battery powered homes. Tesla have already had so much initial demand for the product since its announcement this month. “The response has been overwhelming, like crazy” since battery was announced said Elon Musk. 'We're basically sold out through the middle of next year in the first week.' Gigafactory 1, Tesla’s Lithium ion battery manufacturing facility in Nevada state had planned to make 35 gigawatts of cells and 50 gigawatts of power packs. That will now be increased by 50 per cent.

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