Tesla Powerpack: Dawn of the Age of Storage

Stationary energy storage has several applications. Utilities use it to even out differences in supply and demand, and avoid using natural gas “peaker plants” that they would otherwise have to activate during times of high demand. Commercial utility customers that use large amounts of energy at peak times (for example, for DC fast charging of electric vehicles) use it to avoid expensive demand charges. And of course, it is a key enabling technology for the new energy economy, because it makes it practical for intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar to be primary energy providers to the grid.


Above: Tesla Powerpacks (Instagram: baqproyectos)

Pumped-water energy storage is in widespread use, and more exotic technologies such as compressed air and molten salt are being tested. The most practical and versatile technology is battery storage, but this has traditionally been too expensive for large-scale applications. That is rapidly changing - lithium-ion battery prices have been cut almost in half since 2014 - and Tesla is at the forefront of the revolution. Tesla built one of three gigantic battery storage plants that are now going live in southern California. Any one of these would have been the largest battery storage facility ever built, and their combined capacity equals 15 percent of the battery storage installed in the world in 2016.


Above: Battery price decline between 2013 - 2016 (Source: Bloomberg*)

Southern California Edison (SCE) commissioned the three projects in response to a disastrous natural gas leak in Los Angeles that released thousands of tons of methane into the air. With the threat of winter blackouts approaching, the new facilities were brought online in record time. Tesla completed its project in an amazing three months. “There were teams working out there 24 hours a day, living in construction trailers and doing the commissioning work at two in the morning,” said Tesla Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel. “It feels like the kind of pace that we need to change the world. Our storage is growing as fast as we can humanly scale it.”


Above: Tesla's Powerpack installation at Southern California Edison's substation (Youtube: Tesla Europe)

Tesla hopes to deliver 15 gigawatt-hours of battery storage per year by the 2020s - several nuclear power plants worth of electricity. As usual, that’s a mighty ambitious goal. According to a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for battery storage to be profitable on a wider scale, the total installed cost of a battery plant would need to drop by half, to about $275 per kilowatt hour, an event that the analysts don’t expect to occur for another decade.


Above: A look inside the Tesla Powerpack (Youtube: Engadget)

But the days of natural gas peaker plants are numbered, according to John Zahurancik, President of Battery Storage for AES, which has just completed a 30 megawatt/120 megawatt hour plant that’s even bigger than the 20 MW/80 MWh plant Tesla built for SCE. AES is working on a new project that will be five times the size of Tesla’s when completed in 2021. “This is my fifth time doing the largest project in the world for energy storage, and each time people tell me, ‘well this is really the test,’” Zahurancik said in a recent interview. “The next big test is how do we scale this up broadly.”


Above: Tesla's Powerpacks at Southern California Edison's substation (Source: Electrek*)

Meanwhile, the list of locations using Tesla Powerpack products is steadily growing. Business Insider* has put together a recap of some recent Tesla Powerpack projects around the world:

  • The island of Ta’u in American Samoa is now using solar power and Tesla Powerpacks for almost all of its energy needs.
  • A luxury lodge at Kruger National Park in South Africa uses solar panels and a 3,150-kilowatt-hour Powerpack system.
  • A resort on Fiji’s Malolo Island generates electricity with a 1-megawatt solar array powered by 20 Tesla Powerpacks.
  • Vector, a utility company in New Zealand, uses a 2-megawatt-hour Powerpack system to offset energy loads during peak times.
  • The Hawaiian island of Kaua’i has installed a Tesla system that includes 55,000 solar panels and 52 megawatt-hours of energy storage. It will supply 20% of the island’s peak load.
  • La Crema, a winery in Sonoma County, California, runs on solar energy stored by a 1,200-kilowatt-hour Powerpack system.
  • Dent Island, a fishing lodge on a small island in British Columbia, uses 5 Tesla Powerpacks to store energy from a tidal energy turbine.
  • Ocracoke Island in North Carolina has installed a 1-megawatt-hour Powerpack system that allows it to reduce its use of diesel generators.
  • The Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has a 2-megawatt solar array and a 500-kilowatt Powerpack at its craft brewery in Chico, California.
  • The StubHub Center in Carson, California stores energy during off-peak times using 20 Tesla Powerpacks totaling 2,000 kilowatt-hours of capacity.


*Sources: New York Times, Bloomberg, Electrek, Business Insider