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Sustainable Energy

Why Tesla Wants to Sell a Battery for Your Home

Tesla launches a stationary battery aimed at companies with variable electricity rates and homes with solar panels.

Without some form of energy storage, increased use of solar power will overwhelm the grid.

Seeking to expand its business beyond electric vehicles, Tesla Motors will sell stationary batteries for residential, commercial, and utility use under a new brand, Tesla Energy.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Powerwall battery at the company’s design studio in Hawthorne, California, on Thursday.

Tesla is launching the home battery business partly because it’s already making vehicle batteries—and as a result it can benefit from the economies of scale that come from making both. Another reason is that the market for storage is expected to grow in concert with the use of solar power. Tesla needs both electric vehicles and solar power to boom if it hopes to fulfill the projected output from a vast $5 billion battery “gigafactory” it’s building in Nevada.

“The obvious problem with solar power is that the sun does not shine at night,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at the unveiling of the new batteries at the company’s design studio in Hawthorne, California, yesterday. “We need to store the energy that is generated during the day so you can use it at night.”

A number of solar companies now offer batteries to accompany their solar panels (see “Solar Power, and Somewhere to Store It”). Although just a tenth of a percent of U.S. homes now get power from rooftop solar panels combined with energy storage, such systems could account for 3 percent of homes by 2018, according to Greentech Media Research.

Tesla’s residential battery, called Powerwall, will be available in several months and will come in two sizes, a seven-kilowatt-hour battery system that costs $3,000 and a slightly larger 10-kilowatt-hour system for $3,500. The larger battery would keep an average-sized home running for a day. It is unclear what the cost of installation would be.

Tesla expects that many sales will come from commercial customers who pay a variable rate of electricity over the course of a day based on demand. Such customers already see significant reductions in their energy bills by drawing on stored electricity during periods of peak energy demand.

In the near term, the market for home energy storage will depend on how states regulate homeowners’ ability to buy and sell electricity. Net metering, currently available in 43 states, allows residential customers to sell excess generation back to their utility company at retail rates. The policies are being challenged by utility companies that say it undermines their ability to recoup grid infrastructure costs. But as long as net metering continues, consumers will have little need to buy an energy storage system because they can sell the excess solar power they generate rather than store it, says Jay Stein, an analyst with energy consulting company E Source. “I don’t see any financial payoff for them to buy batteries,” he says.

Most utilities that offer net metering, however, also allow residential customers to buy and sell electricity at rates that vary throughout the day based on demand. Battery storage would allow such people to maximize the value of the electricity they sell back to the utility.

“There are some arbitrage values emerging,” says Karl Rábago, executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center in White Plains, New York. “If I could export selectively, using a storage device, I might beget higher value for my generation.”

Home energy storage will make more sense in the years to come. Residential and commercial solar-plus-storage systems will offer a clear cost advantage over electricity from the grid throughout the United States by 2030, according to a recent report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy research and consulting group.

Tesla’s Nevada gigafactory, which it’s building with Panasonic, will have an annual production capacity of 35 gigawatt-hours by 2020, more than all the lithium-ion batteries produced globally in 2013.

Such a large investment in what is still a niche market is risky, but Tesla claims that the new factory will cut battery costs by 30 percent when it begins operations, as early as 2016. Tesla’s biggest challenge will likely be filling enough orders for the output. By 2020, the plant will be able to produce enough batteries for half a million electric vehicles per year. Last year, Tesla sold around 20,000 cars.

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