Tony Stark is having a good week. He launched the world’s biggest, most technologically advanced phallic symbol into space, recovered two of its rockets in a synchronised sci-fi special, and fired an electric car and a mannequin astronaut into a millenia long heliocentric orbit between Earth and Mars.
For most, it was a triumph of human ingenuity and a moment of pure, surreal delight (although of course there was plenty of hand wringing from the usual suspects about space junk and hubris). Either way, it seems clear that when humanity eventually becomes an interplanetary species, that ruby red roadster and its handy note for aliens “Made on Earth by humans” is going to feature in quite a few history lessons.
That’s not what this article is about.
It’s about something else that everyone’s favourite space cowboy recently pulled off that in the medium term at least, may prove to be just as significant for the human race. You’ve probably seen this already, but there are a few extra details you may not know about.
The story begins in March last year, when Mr Stark bet Australian digital wunderkind Mike Cannon-Brookes that he could build the world’s largest grid storage battery in Australia within 100 days, or he would supply it for free. The bet happened on Twitter (you know, the same communications platform that’s supposed to start World War 3). Critics said building something that big would take years.
It took 60 days. It’s the biggest, most badass battery on the planet, and in the short time it’s been turned on it’s been making everyone in the Australian energy industry lose their minds.
Two weeks after it was plugged in, one of the largest coal power plants in the country suddenly went offline, losing the equivalent of 170,000 homes worth of power. In the blink of an eye, enough electricity to supply 30,000 homes surged into the grid from the Tesla battery, buying valuable time for other sources to come to the rescue. It was 100% clean, generated from an adjoining wind farm, and its availability prevented a cascading grid failure that could have left hundreds of thousands of customers without power.
It’s often easy to take technology for granted. Perhaps you’re looking at those numbers and going ‘meh.’ So let’s just pause for a minute here to take stock.
When I say the Tesla battery responded in the blink of an eye, I’m being literal. It responded in 0.14 seconds, which is about twice as fast a human blink. It was so quick that the local grid operator didn’t have the right units to measure the response time. They’re used to traditional emergency generators that take 15 minutes to get fired up. And to give you an idea of how much power surged into the grid, here’s what roughly 30,000 homes look like in Melbourne’s inner north. Imagine being able to flick a switch that sends clean energy surging into every single coffee shop, hipster boutique and yoga studio below?
Critics of battery farms say they can’t handle all the chores of a stable grid. That’s true. But it’s also kind of irrelevant. The batteries aren’t there as a power generation resource. They’re there to store a few hours of power, smooth out the curves, regulate flows and drive down costs. They provide a super quick, flexible, much-needed injection of reliability and resiliency into our electricity networks. They’re the missing link in large scale grids that will eventually mix counter-cyclical surges of solar and wind.
This is what large chunks of our 21st century energy systems are going to look like. Clean energy power plants, with giant battery farms attached. The largest thermal solar + storage facility in the southern hemisphere, with 3.5 million panels and 1.1 million batteries, is being built near Adelaide. A Norwegian energy group is installing the world’s first offshore wind-farm battery system off the coast of Scotland. We’re seeing a new generation of battery gigafactories being built in Europe and China. And the storage options are starting to get seriously cheap. The costs are falling faster than even the most optimistic projections.
In January 2018 it was the turn of American energy analysts to lose their minds when a utility company in Colorado revealed ‘shockingly low bids’ from developers. With storage technology costs included, the average price for wind was 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour, lower than the operating cost of all coal plants currently in Colorado. For solar plus storage, the average price was 3.6 cents per kilowatt hour, lower than three quarters of operating coal capacity. These are the lowest ever clean energy + storage bids in the United States, and most likely anywhere in the world.
These figures matter because they’re real world prices. Usually, when we make renewable energy forecasts for the next five years, we rely on projections. These prices from Colorado were different. The developers weren’t guessing. They were promising only what they knew they could deliver, with real money on the line.
That’s why it’s fun being an energy geek! As our favourite analyst David Roberts says:
let’s face it: in most areas of life, when you look past the hype at the real numbers, it’s depressing. Renewable energy is one area where that typical dynamic is diverted. The closer you look, the better the news gets.
A lot of those battery costs are being driven down by the electric vehicles explosion. The lithium-ion batteries that power the big Tesla system are the same ones that are in its cars. In the last eight years, the price of those has fallen by 79%. They still need to come down by another 50% before electric vehicles will be cost competitive, but that’s happening quickly now that the other car companies are in on the game. General Motors for example, says that by reducing the amount of expensive cobalt and adding nickel, its battery costs will drop by 45% over the next three years. In China a company called CATL is planning a $1.3 billion lithium-ion battery factory with enough capacity to surpass Tesla.
We’ve got better technology coming too. In some parts of the battery industry, the focus has moved from using liquid electrolytes to solid state batteries, which provide safer and more powerful energy storage. Toyota says it’s working to commercialise the technology in the early 2020s, and British car company Dyson says it will invest $1.3 billion to build an electric car using solid state batteries within three years, also outpacing Tesla. In Massachusetts a startup has developed a lithium metal battery that has double the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries, and is now selling them commercially for use in drones.
In large scale storage, the most exciting development is what’s known as vanadium flow batteries, which looks like a much more promising technology than lithium-ion. Vanadium flow batteries are nonflammable, compact, have a lifetime of 15,000 cycles, discharge all of their stored energy and do not degrade for more than 20 years. In other words, they’re safer, more scalable, longer lasting and and they cost less than half their equivalents in lithium-ion. In China more than 30 projects with vanadium flow batteries have been deployed, including one that’s twice the size of the Tesla battery here in Australia.
The Tesla battery in other words, is just the first in a whole new wave of storage resources. The future of grid scale battery storage is a lot closer than we previously imagined, and its potential impact is a lot greater than almost anyone has anticipated.
For us though, the battery is more than just a market signal. It’s also a reminder to stop, and take a little time to marvel at what we can do. We’re tool making apes that turned left somewhere between the mountains and the savannah and accidentally invented gods and money and nuclear weapons. It doesn’t take long for our tools to go from being amazing innovations, to just the way things are. Two years ago we watched for the first time as a rocket launched itself into orbit and then landed on a floating drone ship at sea. Today, that’s just normal practice. Yesterday 100,000 spectators lined up to watch two rockets performing aerial ballet. Tomorrow we’ll think that’s normal, and go back to complaining about our politicians.
Technology goes from the astonishing to the banal in a very short space of time. We don’t think twice about picking up a phone and making a video call to our families halfway cross the planet. We climb into planes that soar above the clouds as a matter of routine. We take it for granted that we can build huge turbines to harness the power of the wind, trap that energy in a giant box of chemicals, and send enough of it to power 30,000 homes surging into the grid in less time than it takes us to blink.