The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tesla’s Home Battery System Is Not the Best Solution

Why? Because it’s a lithium battery. The advantage of lithium batteries is that they’re relatively small. The disadvantage is that they’re lithium. Salt water batteries, though larger, are generally a better idea because:

  • At the end of their lifetimes, you just drain them. Lithium batteries have to be disposed of properly.
  • Salt water is in plentiful supply. If lithium batteries really take off, we may see supply and price issues.
  • While smaller is better in some situations, larger is better in others. You can throw a Powerwall into your pickup truck, but a salt water battery is too large for that.

I generally admire Elon Musk; he’s one of the only people to come out of the dotcom boom who is doing good work that needs to be done, but lithium household batteries really aren’t the best solution from an ecological viewpoint. Though, yes, combined with renewable energy they’re certainly better than most of the status quo systems.

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  1. Julien

    I look at Tesla’s Powerwall as the iPhone 1 of home energy storage systems. In a sense, it doesn’t matter all that much if it’s not the best battery chemistry. Tesla can make it look sexy and light a fire under that entire market segment. Competitors will arise that will build better batteries for home energy storage systems because Tesla will make people want one.

  2. mike

    Billmon and his commenters have a hellacious Twitter stream going on the Hersh/NBC piece: And Moon of Alabama has a more speculative one running:

  3. Mike Cooper

    Is good, but I agree with Kunstler, it’s kicking the can down the road a bit.

  4. DMC

    Its the technology that we have “off the shelf”. The large versions can be placed at the neighborhood level to absorb the over production of rooftop solar panels that the skeptics are always yammering about. And larger scale storage is much more efficiently handled by high tech compressed air systems, even with current technology, though organic flow batteries show a lot of promise as well. Its preciesly these mass energy storage systems, integrated into the current grid that will reverse the trend toward fragility in the overall system and, consequently allow for the large scale adoption of renewable energy sources.

  5. Jeff Wegerson

    I agree both about Elon and lithium batteries. Flow batteries (and maybe that is what you are referring to when you say salt) is another battery direction that is better suited to stationary situations. With flow your power doesn’t slowly drain away when you are not using it as it often does with something like lithium.

    But yeah Elon has a lot of balls in the air and he uses whatever artifices necessary to keep them up.

  6. RJMeyers

    Agreed on the battery packs. Material bottlenecks are killer for anything that’s supposed to scale to a world of 9 billion people and associated energy/matter needs.

    There’s some neat research going on to create, for lack of a better term, carbohydrate batteries/fuel cells. This guy’s research in particular seems fascinating, though I’m not qualified to judge its full merit (might have to scroll up once the link loads–takes me to the bottom of his page):

    The basic idea is to drastically improve the efficiency of biomass conversion to carbohydrates, then use the carbs for batteries and hydrogen fuel cells to get portable electric energy to power machinery, electronics, etc. It’s still in research phase and whether it will scale up as he hopes is still a big question, but its a neat idea. Depending on how/if the tech develops, I wonder if in a few decades I’ll be able to mow my lawn and feed the clippings to my car.

  7. john c. halasz

    In Dec. 2013, Harvard Engineering School announced a break-through with a flow battery using quinones, which seemed promising, though still a lab bench idea. Lithium ion batteries will never measure up, since, among other thing, we’d have to dig up half the earth to supply the full requirement. And Musk just wants to replace gas automobiles with electric battery automobiles, rather than replacing automobiles with electrified urban mass transit systems and electrified trains. So his promotion of lithium batteries is just capitalist profit-seeking. I still think pumped-water hydroelectric is the most plausible solution for dealing with the intermittency and grid regulation problems with wind and solar, though there is no single unique solution.

  8. steeleweed

    Am I the only one who thinks the best solution to electrical power issues is to build a way of life that does not depend on electrical power?

  9. JustPlainDave

    Given that the use case is peak shaving, the optimal battery chemistry is whatever will best motivate enough of the population to form the first wave to use it. If that takes a sleek Li-ion wall unit, so be it. Later can come the quotidian saltwater chemistry based units with a tenth the energy density.

    The really interesting idea I saw out there was replacing decommissioned power plants with huge battery stores. Haven’t penciled the numbers to see how it plays out, but it’s intuitively interesting.

  10. @steeleweed: No, you are emphatically NOT the only one who thinks that we need to “build a way of life that does not depend on electrical power” or any other form of power. The “great thinkers” of today are mired in what Hyman Rickover called “oxcart thinking,” and what I call tinkering around the edges.

    We have twelve housewives driving twelve different cars to twelve different grocery stores, and the best we can come up with to save the planet is to make those cars get 10% better mileage. Nonsense. We need to eliminate eleven of the trips, replace the car altogether, and replace the grocery store with something more efficient.

  11. S Brennan

    I’ve always thought that batteries for anything but the “last mile” are stupid.

  12. CMike

    Problem solved Bill H? [LINK]

  13. V. Arnold

    @ CMike
    May 13, 2015

    You’re not serious… 🙁

  14. CMike

    @V. Arnold
    May 13, 2015

    For a different solution, specify a different problem.

  15. RJMeyers

    Am I the only one who thinks the best solution to electrical power issues is to build a way of life that does not depend on electrical power?

    What alternative energy carrier do you propose?

    Our material problems seem mostly to be that our primary energy sources are harmful/non-renewable and our manufacturing methods are too linear (extraction to waste). These can be changed while still using electricity to carry energy and information.

  16. @CMike: Probably not, but… I was trying to make the point that tinkering with the mileage of cars instead of trying to achieve a more efficient social model is nonsensical. The example may have been too subtle for some.

    @RJMeyers: The larger point is not changing from one source/type of power to another, but building a different social model that doesn’t depend on using as much power of any type from any source.

    Perhaps rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic would be an analogy which would better make my point.

  17. JustPlainDave

    Having spent no small amount of time actively seeking to engineer different social models, I have to say only someone who’s never tried to do it would say that seeking good technological changes is worthless by comparison.

    One of the little rules that one learns doing this is that one doesn’t cavalierly walk away from trillions of dollars of sunk infrastructure costs that – somewhat repurposed – could make new social models viable. When one says one wants to build a society that’s not dependent on electricity one is essentially saying that one has utterly no idea what is and isn’t possible and no intention of doing the work.

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