Technology

Tesla and the wall of skepticism

 By Chris Dalby

Every few years, along comes a technology that is seen as the great new leap forward. While some of them, such as Laserdiscs and QR codes, were soon consigned to the scrapheap, Tesla’s Powerwall is the latest to enjoy this reputation. While not everything Elon Musk, Tesla’s owner, turns to gold, his track record is certainly enviable. Powerwall, Tesla’s latest product, aims to provide a solution to energy storage and load shifting problems. By being attached to the wall of normal houses and priced (somewhat) affordably, it aims to make major dents into electricity bills, of at least 30 percent. Chris Dalby looks at whether the attraction for Tesla’s Powerwall is deserved for a true innovation or whether it is being generated by an as-of-yet imperfect technology…

Every few years, along comes a technology that is seen as the great new leap forward. While some of them, such as Laserdiscs and QR codes, were soon consigned to the scrapheap, Tesla’s Powerwall is the latest to inspire excitement.

While not everything Elon Musk, Tesla’s owner, turns to gold, his track record is certainly enviable. Powerwall, Tesla’s latest product, aims to provide a solution to energy storage and load shifting problems. By being attached to the wall of normal houses and priced (somewhat) affordably, it aims to make major dents into electricity bills, of at least 30 percent.

Built in a joint venture by Tesla and Panasonic, Powerwall made a huge splash on launch. Its second version, launched in October, built on the promise of the first, showing Tesla’s continued technological process. News about the Tesla Powerwall has largely been greeted with a positive reception by the media, eager to shine a light on Musk’s new success. But does the Powerwall stand up to scrutiny? If it does, it would seem to be heralding a revolution in energy storage, providing a major incentive for households to set up solar installations, allowing them to cut their bills and make some money at the same time.

Early reports of its usage have backed up the hype so far. An Australian man, Nick Pfitzer, who tested a Powerwall for six months said his electricity bill has fallen by 90 percent.

However, despite this impressive performance, Pfitzer says the installation cost of the Powerwall makes it far too expensive for most households at the moment. No matter, says Tesla, since the Model 3 Powerwall, set to be available in 2018, promises to be mass-produced and much cheaper.

New Tesla Powerwall

Despite these promises, Christopher Helman lays out that cost in worrying detail. “Musk said Tesla’s 7 kwh capacity battery would cost $3,000, while the 10 kwh capacity one would be $3,500. (That doesn’t include the cost of a DC-AC inverter – about $2,000 – plus professional installation.)” Others report that the Powerwall could be a source of noise pollution, saying that “one German customer measured a noise level of more than 80 decibels coming from a Powerwall installed in his home in February. That is roughly equivalent to the noise made by garbage disposal.”

This story was categorically shot down by Tesla, with its spokesperson stating that this was due to incorrect firmware being used in early installations and that, when operating normally, a Powerwall is as noisy as a “quiet household refrigerator.”

In March, the company also quietly got rid of its 10 kwh model, allegedly due to the 7 kwh model being able to take over the role originally foreseen for its larger brother, while being able to last longer. According to the firm, the smaller Powerwall is for solar power time-shifting while the larger model was to provide backup during power cuts. The smaller one is now touted as doing both and lasting longer.

This run of bad press could have sparked a crisis of confidence for Tesla and SolarCity. However, the opposite has happened. Teething doubts about installation costs were to be expected.

But the marketplace didn’t lose faith. Within a week of its unveiling in May 2015, the Powerwall had already received an estimated $1 billion in pre-sales. Authorized resellers have been appointed in 10 countries. Elon Musk has already said Mark II is on the way.

SEE MORE: Powering the energy storage revolution by Mike Scott

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Some analysts have hit closer to the mark. The cost of the Powerwall and the number needing to be deployed to net real savings on the industrial scale mean that alone, the machine will not change the future of energy consumption. The savings impact of the Powerwall also depends on national electricity prices and government subsidies in different countries, as well as potential pushback from traditional electricity providers. This is ultimately the future Tesla has always pushed for. Yes, the Tesla made huge advances in driverless cars but instead of patenting the technology, it made its patents free for use, opening up all manner of partnerships.

Since its launch around 18 months ago, Powerwall has also essentially created a new market. Challengers have risen up left and right. The German company Sonnen may feel aggravated that nobody talked about its products, which predated the Powerwall, but it can count on an installed user base of thousands. Kickstarter funded the smaller Orison, which has just a 2.2 kWh charge but brings more connectivity, with an app tracking energy savings. Others are sure to follow.

The Powerwall has a similar vision. It seeks to provide the beginning of an answer to energy storage and related savings, not set itself up as the alpha and omega. So is it the real deal? The unsatisfying answer is that it’s too soon to tell. It has not been deployed, either in a residential or industrial setting, on anywhere near the scale needed to assess its actual usefulness.

Furthermore, the success of the first Powerwall now doesn’t matter. The new model presents 13.5 kwh of usable storage, more than twice the 6.4 of the original model. While an impressive step up, this is still below what an average family consumes in a day (17.6 kwh in Sydney, Australia, for example).

Given the success of PayPal and Tesla cars, and despite major problems with Space X rockets, Elon Musk is still likely to impress again.

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.