One of the problems that comes from reliance on solar power is the “duck curve” where the solar panels produce more power than is needed during the day, and standby power is needed in the evening when demand is high and the sun goes down. The common solution has been to turn on natural gas “peaker” plants to produce power when the needed in those few hours. But in Southern California, a big natural gas leak turned into what Melissa called an epic ecological disaster, sending utilities searching for an alternative to gas.
© If it looks like a duck ... (Photo: California ISO)
One of those alternatives that people dreamed about just a few years ago was giant batteries, and Elon Musk promised that he would make them in his new Nevada factory. What is really astonishing is that in just three months, Tesla has delivered a giant battery farm with 396 stacks of batteries that can provide enough electricity to power 15,000 houses for four hours, about how long it takes to shave the peaks, to kill the duck.
Even the experts are shocked at the speed this is happening at: According to the New York Times,
“I had relatively limited expectations for the battery industry in advance of 2020,” said Michael J. Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission. “I thought that it would not really accelerate and begin to penetrate the electric grid or the transportation world for a while to come. Once again, technology is clearly moving faster than we can regulate.”
Natural gas peaker plants are expensive and controversial; you want them near the user, but the NIMBYs come out in force. Battery packs are much simpler, they are modular and they are scalable. According to Tesla Chief Technology Officer J.B. Straubel in Bloomberg,
“There were teams working out there 24 hours a day, living in construction trailers and doing the commissioning work at two in the morning,” Straubel said. “It feels like the kind of pace that we need to change the world.”
MIT Technology Review's Jamie Condliffe is a bit of a skeptic, noting that lithium batteries are expensive and that they degrade.
Tesla doesn’t say how many cycles that the batteries in its Powerpack systems, which make up the installation, can tolerate before they degrade and reach the end of their useful life. But like other lithium-ion batteries, it’s likely in the thousands—probably around 5,000, the same as its Powerwall units. That’s not bad in a domestic setting, but could be quickly devoured in a grid setting.
Others do not think this is too much of a problem, that battery prices will keep dropping, and that they will keep getting better.
Now that they can replace expensive and controversial peaker plants with battery packs, the game changes again in favour of solar and wind. Straubel of Tesla is right- this will change the world.