Concrete Progress: Has Elon Musk Outsmarted the Energy Grid?

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.

Last week, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and the P.T. Barnum of Silicon Valley, introduced the world to the Powerwall: a battery that can power your house. If this thing works, it could take us a giant step toward a future of low-cost, grid-free rooftop solar. Powerwalls hold ten kilowatt-hours (kWh), about enough to power the average home for eight hours. The price is $3,500, which made me exclaim out loud, right there in my car, when NPR told me about it. I would have believed ten times that number. There’s also a seven-kWh version for $3,000. They are wall-mounted, come in a variety of colors, and can be ordered from Tesla right now.

I’ve written before, in this space, about the future of energy, the quest to build a better battery, and the rise of rooftop solar. Solar has always seemed to me like the future—we get clean power from the sun for free, so let’s use it—but one of the major barriers to sustainable energy has been our inability to store enough juice for the times when the sun doesn’t shine. The way it’s currently structured, the energy economy, as has been pointed out elsewhere, sells a product for immediate use—it’s as if you had to go to the supermarket every time you wanted a snack. Lots of people have tried to get away from this with solar panels, but when you get right down to it, most still rely on the grid. If establishing widespread and off-grid renewable energy is like solving a puzzle, then finding the right battery is today’s missing piece.

Will Powerwalls be the difference? After the initial gee-whiz wore off, I did begin to wonder. How long will they take to charge? How many charges will they yield, and how many years will they last? Is seven to ten kWh in the sweet spot—affordable but sufficiently powerful enough to release people from the grid? Will they get cheaper? Will they get stronger?

I believe they will. I think this is the beginning of individualized energy. I believe it because of Elon Musk.

Musk is essentially a James Bond villain, without the villainy. He is, and I am not kidding here, the real-life model for Iron Man (the cast of the movie gave him a signed statue). He’s a South African who, refusing to serve in the “fascist army” of the apartheid state, moved to Canada at age seventeen and now lives in California (he’s become an American citizen), conjuring up ideas and inventing new things along the way.

In 2002, Musk co-founded PayPal. He made $165 million when it was sold; then he turned around and started SpaceX, a rocket company that has a contract with NASA to resupply the International Space Station. In 2008 he began Tesla, the electric car company that I raved about a few months ago. Tesla’s building what they call a gigafactory, in Nevada, where they’ll churn out batteries (presumably this will lower the price of the Powerwalls over time). Last year they made all their patents publicly available, in hopes of furthering the electric car movement. Musk is also the CEO of Solar City (his most normal business), the biggest home solar company in the US. He talks about inventing a “hyperloop,” a futuristic transport system that would (will?) get you from LA to San Francisco in half an hour—which is something I would absolutely write a column about if it were real. His net worth is about $11 billion. He’s forty-three years old.

I don’t mean to be too much of an Elon Musk fanboy. I have no idea if he’s a nice person—perhaps he keeps a tank of hammerhead sharks in his Bel Air mansion—but the man lives his life with undeniable verve. He is disarmingly self-aware (he brought up Dr. Evil in his Powerwall press conference ), and he, of all the people who are striving to reimagine infrastructure, might be doing the most. Of course, while there is every reason to believe that Musk’s environmentalism is real, there is something else to remember about all this: it is very much in Elon Musk’s interest for these Powerwalls to work. They will fit right in with his electric car company and his home solar company.

Now, there are many roles for Powerwalls beyond solar. The most immediate and widely helpful one is that they can lower your electricity bills, no matter how that electricity is generated, by charging up at night and then using the battery during the day. (Nighttime is when utilities often sell lower-priced power to meet lower demand; using power at such times also helps them avoid scrambling to meet peak demand.) The other obvious role for Powerwalls is in place of generators: I wish I’d had one when an ice storm Grinched up Christmas a couple of years ago. More broadly, Powerwalls will be great for isolated communities, from Indian reservations to remote islands to African villages, which rely on diesel generators, if they have power at all. Such places may never have power lines or ever be connected to a national grid.

As Musk told a crowd last week, the technology scales up “infinitely”: Tesla is selling one-hundred-kWh blocks to utilities to use with wind farms, for example. But the goal, as Musk says himself, is “to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy.” He believes that the way to do this is through individualized solar and electric transportation, all made possible by battery storage. Some people have doubts—they say that even $3,000 is too much compared to the ordinary rate of twelve cents/kWh—but these same people presumably cannot believe that anyone would buy, say, a Prius, when there are cheaper options in the used car lot out by the highway. There is some truth to this—grid inertia is hard to overcome. But for all the reasons above, I expect this to work.

A few months ago, I wrote about the rooftop solar explosion in Oahu. The flood of power rolling back to the grid on sunny days has caused the local utility, HECO, to restrict consumers from buying more solar panels. In the Powerwall-driven future, the problem would be minimized, and that extra sunlight will simply be stored up at home, like leftover pasta in the fridge, to be used whenever and however you wish.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.


  1. Sounds great, but it’s important to ask where the lithium in these batteries comes from. Typically it’s from Argentina, China, and Chile, where the lithium mines create a big environmental impact. Quoting Friends of the Earth, Europe:
    “The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.” Also, lithium is not in such great supply that everyone in the world who wants a Powerwall will get one.

  2. This is a really good point. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that there’s no clean energy – we just have to make decisions about what impacts we choose. The lithium supply is a concern, but on balance solar+lithium seems better than coal or natural gas. Perhaps the wooden batteries at Maryland (and their sodium ions) will develop to the point where they work in Powerwalls.

  3. Right, that’s my point, and I’m not saying ‘don’t do it,’ but that there’s a downside to all the lithium in our phone, Prius, and soon, house batteries, that needs consideration. If Tesla goes big on this battery, that = lots more mining.

  4. Will this battery be enough to power a home overnight *while* recharging the electric car in the garage… overnight…?

  5. Interestingly, the lithium comes from within 120 miles of the Nevada gigafactory. I live there. The site was chosen in part for its proximity to both the largest deposits of lithium in the country, and efficient deployability globally via rail to the Bay Area. Compared to the 85+ freight trains rolling daily across Wyoming and the Dakotas bringing coal to Chicago and beyond–this seems not only sensible but sage economically and environmentally. Now, in a post-winter era of the Sierra Nevada Range, where we’re staring down the barrel of 1% of average snowfall, water will be the bigger concern.

  6. Storage is the missing link in alternative energy. Tesla seems to have done it right. The obstacle will be competition from the biggest dirtiest enemies of alternative energy, the real Dr. Evils, who run big oil, coal and nuclear and their defenders in government, our elected officials. With technology available for a better world, how will we create enough political will to displace the spoilers?

  7. Chris – that’s a good question. I’m not sure how much it takes to charge an electric car. Probably depends on the size of the house.
    Colin – that’s really interesting. Thanks.
    Steve – I expect to see the fossil energy companies moving into renewables more heavily in the future. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that.

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